Behind glass screens and dressed in funeral black, the last four members of the Prozorov family stand around a grave as the audience take their seats. While the action of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters begins exactly a year after the death of the titular sisters’ father, this loss overhangs much of the play.

Three Sisters opens on preparations for the 22nd birthday party of the youngest sister Irina, played by Miranda Daughtry, in a large house on the edge of a remote town where the well-educated, city-raised children (urban elites, essentially) moved for their father’s job on a military base. Beginning with the party, the play presents snapshots across five years of their lives.

Sydney Theatre Company, Three SistersAlison Bell as Olga in Sydney Theatre Company’s Three Sisters. Photos © Brett Boardman

This new adaptation for Sydney Theatre Company by former Artistic Director Andrew Upton, directed by current Artistic Director Kip Williams, gives Chekhov’s play a modern, Australian feel. It’s set broadly in the 1970s, though the Moscow the sisters long for is replaced simply with “Home”, leaving the setting to drift in an abstract space that doesn’t commit to a location.

Chekhov’s text is full of references to the Russian classics, like Pushkin, Lemontov and Gogol, which would have been familiar to his audiences but are less so to a contemporary Australian audience. Upton instead draws on a more familiar cultural heritage, sprinkling the dialogue with nods to Shakespeare, with the music of Bob Dylan standing in for folk-song references.

While there is plenty of comedy in Three Sisters, it’s a dark, often bleak humour. Lurid balloons pop against the brutal black backdrop of Alice Babidge’s set, as the eldest daughter Olga (Alison Bell), a school teacher, reminisces about Father’s funeral, punctuating the awkward conversation with the sharp hiss of helium. A veiled Masha (Eryn Jean Norvill) slumps on the couch in the mourning-garb she will wear for the entire play, while Irina eats cereal and reads a newspaper on the floor.

Visitors accumulate at the birthday party, from Baron Tusenbach – or Nick – a soldier in love with Irina, played with a puppy-dog optimism by Harry Greenwood, to Chebutikin (Anthony Brandon Wong) an aging army doctor and family friend who lavishes attention and gifts on the sisters, and the new brigade commander Colonel Vershinin, whos arrival seems to promise change and excitement.

Sydney Theatre Company, Three SistersEryn Jean Norvill as Masha, Harry Greenwood as Tusenbach and Mark Leonard Winter as Vershinin

The first act is a deftly orchestrated crescendo of conversational cross-currents, awkward moments and chaotic social interaction – all crafted in an ‘Aussie barbeque’ environment – in which characters speak over and ignore each other. The glass screens create an effective divide, the foreground a living room that opens onto a backyard – perfect for entertaining.

It’s a wordy play in which much is spoken of but little achieved – “precious life talked into a stew of blather” as Masha puts it at one point. Verbal leitmotifs like “hard work” and “shattered” thread through the piece, while early calls for “Wisdom and Action” are left by the wayside. An impotent dissatisfaction with life builds throughout, the characters finding opposing concepts like company and solitude, silence and speaking, equally intolerable – and while this is plumbed for comic effect, it is also built into the tragedy of the work. So much of the uncomfortableness of the first three acts comes from the increasingly claustrophobic press of people and personalities – but when they dissipate in the finale it’s hardly a relief.

The cast is strong, particularly the sisters. Alison Bell makes for a quirky, maternal Olga, increasingly burdened by the pressures of her job but trying to hold everything together. Miranda Daughtry charts a course as Irina from naive optimism to crushing disillusionment, while Eryn Jean Norvill’s manic Masha spins wildly through the play, despising her husband and fascinated by Vershinin.

Sydney Theatre Company, Three SistersNikki Shiels as Natasha and Brandon McClelland as Andrei

Mark Leonard Winter is fervent as the verbose, philosophising Vershinin, matching Masha’s energy, while Chris Ryan is goofily earnest as Masha’s husband Kulygin. Brandon McClelland gives us a limp, ineffectual Andrei, easily overpowered by first his sisters then his wife, while Nikki Shiels is vibrant as Natasha – the town girl who Andrei marries. Though scorned as an outsider by the sisters in the first act, her character doesn’t quite elicit enough sympathy in the first act to be much more than comic relief later on, once she has asserted her power over house and household. It’s telling, however, that while her dialogue is less grand (her verbal motifs are simpler, direct and goal-oriented) she is the only character who achieves something like what she wants.

Melita Jurisic inspires sympathy as the Prozorov’s ailing house-keeper, abused by Natasha, while Peter Carroll puts in a comic turn as the hard-of-hearing Phillip (Ferapont in Chekov’s text). Solyony, played with a barely restrained menace by Rahel Romahn, is a troubled soldier whose red-flag behaviour is for the most part ignored, excused or made light of – he’s the most visible manifestation of a deep anger that permeates this world. Charles Wu and Callan Colley do a fine job of filling out the soldiers, Fedotik and Rode respectively.

Sydney Theatre Company, Three SistersMiranda Daughtry as Irina

While Three Sisters could be a work of gradual, inexorable decay, in Williams’ hands it becomes one of immolation, building to a frenzy over the first three acts that leaves only cold ashes in the fourth – the final set is an open space adorned with a single dead tree à la Waiting for Godot. Though comedy infuses the chaos and desperate reaching of the earlier acts, by the end what were once humorous quirks have become tragic and jokes fall flat in a gruellingly empty finale.

This reimagining of Chekhov’s Three Sisters brings the Russian playwright’s masterpiece into a uniquely Australian idiom, offering plenty of laughs with characters and attitudes that are often strikingly and disturbingly familiar – but in the end it’s a brutal, scouring piece of theatre.

Sydney Theatre Company’s Three Sisters is at the Sydney Opera House until December 16.


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