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Three Sisters

SATURDAY 7th February 2004

"When you clutch at happiness bit by bit and then lose it the way I have...you get angry." Thus Masha sums up her plight in Anton Chekhov's drama about life in a provincial backwater. The play focuses on four characters and their dreams of returning to Moscow, a city remembered through the eyes of childhood as a place where happiness is possible.

  IF YOU LIKE THIS, TRY...

   Anna Karenina (Bernard Rose, 1997)

   Howard's End (James Ivory, 1992)

   Dr Zhivago (David Lean, 1965)

Chekhov strongly believed that "the drama of the person is inside, not in outward manifestations". He often battled for more understatement from his expressive director, Konstantin Stanislavsky. Chekhov has a far more compliant colleague in Michael Blakemore who directs Christopher Hampton's new adaptation of the play.

Blakemore is seasoned in the art of bringing the Russian's words to life, most famously with his landmark West End production of Uncle Vanya 14 years ago. Here, he remains happy to follow Chekhov's instructions and amplify the play's dramatic volume through many silent facial expressions and movements. A lot can happen in few words.

  DID YOU KNOW?

   George Bernard Shaw said that reading Chekhov's plays made him want to tear up his own.

   Chekhov trained first to be a doctor, turning to writing to supplement his income. He later said, "Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature my mistress."

Critical acclaim has greeted Kristin Scott Thomas's London stage debut as the beautiful but embittered Masha. We watch her falling in love with a joyful naivety, only to see her disappointed once more. Meanwhile, her brother Andrei's journey is one of romance to resentment. By the second act, disappointment oozes from the hunched shoulders of Douglas Hodge, cast here against type.

The siblings' dreams, for marriage and fulfilment, are either hopelessly compromised or dashed. The tedium of provincial life is palpable. And Blakemore brings out the alienating egoism of the characters, each caught up too hopelessly in a personal despair to feel compassion for those around.

Critics have praised the light comic touches in this production, but some have lamented its lack of urgency. Certainly, there is a gradual but profound change of atmosphere as it becomes clear that that the Prozorov girls will never make it to Moscow. We see them deliberate only between boredom and heartbreak, the living proof of Vershinin's words, "There is no happiness for us. All we can do is long for it."