From Russia with love, via Yorkshire

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Timothy Ramsden explains how the Bront sisters influenced Chekhov

Three Sisters

By Anton Chekhov; National Theatre

Happiness thwarted could subtitle Chekhov's story of the Prozorov sisters and brother Andre (Dominic Rowan), stuck in a Urals backwater, says director Katie Mitchell.

They try love and marriage: none of it works out. She finds in Chekhov himself both the doctor with sympathy for all characters (Chekhov was a doctor by profession) and the opinionated man who hated the olive-green fashionable with women when he revisited his birthplace, Taganrog.

Colour is coded in the play, expressing character. Age matters too: it seems likely Olga (Lorraine Ashbourne) began teaching around the time Masha (Eve Best) married Kulygin (Angus Wright) - the older sister remaining unmarried and finding a new role in life. Despite the headaches, her job becomes preferable to time at home with sister-in-law Natasha (Lucy Whybrow). Mitchell finds sympathy for Natasha, a thoughtful mother stuck in her in-laws' home.

Act three brings matters to the boil; they've been brewing over three-and-a-half years, Olga having avoided confrontation. But it's late-night, a dislocating time, in Olga and Irina's (Anna Maxwell Martin) bedroom, a private, female place. It's the time, too, when Masha's lover, the officer Vershinin (Ben Daniels) discovers his wife has abandoned their two children.

Chekhov made clear that it's only after he learns of her action that Vershinin consummates his relationship with Masha. Masha's husband, the teacher Kulygin, Mitchell sees as the biggest man in the play, confronting Masha's unfaithfulness with forgiveness. It's embarrassment that makes him hide behind his childish final-act trick with the joke spectacles he's confiscated. While the popular Vershinin, seeking both to charm and cover embarrassment with his long philosophical speeches, is not an authorial voice.

The second philosopher here is Tuzenbach (Paul Hilton), the Marx and Darwin-fed idealist, born with footmen to take off his boots, who follows the Russian Populist movement in working in a brickworks (here, a steel factory). He is to be joined by his wife, Irina, hoping to find teaching the workers gives the satisfaction no job has yet provided. Until, like the sick author's, Tuzenbach's life is cut short Their father's selling-up led the women to this remote town. Unfairly, her older sisters, who understand the reality, let Irina continue dreaming of a return to Moscow, symbol of home to Russians.

For British audiences, the play has another homing-point. Chekhov had been reading a life of the Bront s, another three sisters. Like Emily, Masha whistles and wears eccentric clothing (Masha's obsessive black), and Anne Bront 's neurasthenia parallels the transparency ascribed to Irina. There's also the brother with gambling debts. Both Branwell Bront and Andre also share a relationship with a woman who two-times them. Mitchell won't say for the sisters, but she's sure Andre has his origins on the Yorkshire hills.

Previews at the Lyttelton from August 2, opening August 12 and playing in repertory. Tickets tel: 020 7452 3000

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