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Bitter sweet mix

Timothy Ramsden welcomes a rethinking of Three Sisters

THREE SISTERS. By Anton Chekhov. Translated by Mike Poulton. Colchester Mercury Theatre, June 5-21.

We don't have to like the three sisters, says director David Hunt. Their vision is limited by nostalgic longing for the Moscow they remember from childhood. "They're spoilt; only Olga, the eldest, works.

They don't need to work and through Act One speak of it as a whimsy." It's the teacher Olga (Shuna Snow) who eventually upholds the Chekhovian virtue of endurance and who finds happiness.

Key to Hunt's production is that, "With Chekhov, the trick is to keep opinions (of the characters) changing. The director's alerting his cast to the need for a different mindset each act; it's not a continuous narrative, rather four vignettes laid across as many years. The sisters' military background gives Vershinin (Ignatius Anthony), officer with the newly-arrived army corps, a sheen of excitement. Yet he's the character Soviet critics pinpointed to criticise the bourgeoisie for talking, not acting, about society."

Hunt, avowedly apolitical, concurs, "He's very limited, has his party-piece speeches but he's a bore. He repeats himself and adopts others' philosophies".

Nor is this a prime military posting; in this production it's somewhere in the foothills of the Urals. "He decays across the acts. But he's from Moscow." Nostalgia-blinded, the sisters fail to see what's in front of them. For Hunt, "The real trap is Irina (Gina Isaac) and Tusenbach (Hywel Simons). He doesn't look good in a uniform; when he leaves the army he looks fabulous."

But not to Irina. Yet he's the hope for the future. Except, he's killed in a duel by Solyony (Toby Longworth) - a man of honour, if socially inept, a Lermontov-loving romantic who "wants to be a Hero of our Time. His play for Irina is based on his obsession over what Tusenbach could be - it's claustrophobic. And it's an unpleasant surprise for him that Tusenbach leaves the army. Solyony doesn't want him to change and can't bear that others share Tusenbach."

Middle sister Masha (Julia Tarnoky) repeats Pushkin's line about an oak-tree wrapped in a chain. She feels trapped in an unsuitable marriage to her former teacher Kulygin (Andrew Maud). Yet Olga loves him; there's a cruel moment when Kulygin tells Olga that, if it hadn't been for Masha, he'd have married her.

It's not the only insensitivity. The old doctor Chebutykin (Gregory Floy) keeps singing his "Tarara-boom-de-ay" couplet. In Russian it's deliberate comic self-indulgence. Mike Poulton completes it as "We'll all be dead one day" - and Chebutykin has to pull himself up as he sings it after Irina learns of her husband's death. Another example of Chekhov, heir not to Stanislavsky realism but the Russian comic-grotesque tradition of Gogol and Ostrovsky, a "bittersweet" intermingling of tragedy and comedy.

Tickets tel: 01206 573948

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