Review: Three Sisters

There is much to admire, quite a lot to like and something or other to love about Lucy Caldwell's dynamic, lively adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters at Belfast's Lyric Theatre.

It is, for starters, a visual triumph, with technically accomplished production design and colourful costuming. The performances are strong across the board. The direction is swift and snappy. The scripting is thorough and thoughtful. And yet it doesn't hit its highest notes or strike the right emotional chord as often as one feels it ought to.

The demands of the text simply do not leave enough time for proper heartfelt investment in the time that Caldwell and director Selina Cartmell have.

What connection there is has to be unearthed from a combination of the audience's own experiences and the actors' efforts.
Transporting Chekov to Belfast from 1993 to 1998, the titular sisters Olga, Masha and Irina become the similarly named Orla (Julie Maxwell), Marianne (Christine Clare) and Erin (Amy Blair).

Out of the Troubles and into the Ceasefire, out of SAW and into Britpop, the time period was not one worth celebrating, more a surfeit of pop culture and unfulfilled promise that endured for its then-innocent superficiality.
Caldwell has captured this very well, translating it into a well-structured narrative where confusion and dissatisfaction reigns amidst the bright idealism that the sisters evidently strive for but do not get. How else to explain Erin's Supergirl costume at her birthday party near the beginning of the play – the comic book being the very epitome of lofty aims but below par results?

Such intelligent symbolism is put to better use later as Erin sings Ash's "Girl From Mars" in front of a mirror. In the 1990s, the song was an emblem of youth, now it represents raw, lost dreams. For poor Erin, it will be both. Eldest sister Orla, once the most mature, will become the most apathetic. And Marianne is set for the most turbulent time of all.
We learn a little about how too much stability, a not-so-dreamy "dream job", an unhappy marriage and a doomed affair can affect people. We see the effects of those lives on the sisters' faces. Julie Maxwell is impressive. Christine Clare shines. Amy Blair has astonishing moments.
But their performances are a double-edged sword.

As the sisters' souls are drained by their lives, the soul on stage is too. I would like to believe this is intentional. Alas, I'm not entirely sure it is, and the large supporting cast, two of whom feel superfluous, suffer as a result.

Among those by the ladies' sides are Baron (Lewis MacKinnon, energetic), the strong-minded Vershinin (Tim Treloar, a real presence), “uncle” Beattie (a warm and funny Niall Cusack), their sadsack brother Andy (Aidan O'Neill), Andy's wife Siu Jing (Shin-Fei Chen) and Marianne's fun-loving but knowing husband, DJ Cool (Patrick McBrearty).

Despite their backgrounding, Siu Jing, Andy and DJ Cool emerge as arguably the most headstrong characters in the piece. They value necessity over desire: no doubt that they too have identity crises and broken dreams, but their model and image of stable domesticity leaves them better prepared for setbacks than the title characters.

Anyone who has moved abroad to start a new life in a new culture will feel what Siu Jing feels – and Shin-Fei Chen deserves special mention for conveying this.
What Three Sisters leaves us with, then, is a collection of very good ideas and remarkable moments that don't entirely cohere - it is an undoubtedly impressive theatrical achievement, but it offers significantly more for the eyes and the head than the heart. For that reason one can't help but feel a little disappointment.

Three Sisters was performed at Belfast's Lyric Theatre.

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