Three grown-up sisters live near a provincial Russian town, their parents dead. Olga is a schoolteacher, Masha is unhappily married, while the youngest, Irina, is desperate to work and be useful. All three yearn for a more fulfilling existence and long to go to Moscow, 950 miles away. But life gets in the way of their dreams, which dwindle into pipe dreams before our eyes. We sense they will never get there, all but doomed to spinsterhood or sterile marriage. The play is at once a protest against the inevitability of human failure and imperfection, and a bitter reflection on everyday life - its injustices and opportunities missed.
This is a rewarding rendering of this major play. Putting on Chekhov involves certain challenges, and this Oxford School of Drama production demonstrates clear awareness of their nature. The themes of the joys and drawbacks of romantic love, the constraints on society of a rigid class system, and the ease with which purpose in life can turn to disappointment are of course, timeless. The last Three Sisters I saw placed it in something of a vacuum of time and place. By contrast, here, even from before the start, the detailed set by Sarah Booth roots us in a little island of moneyed comfort amid the steppes of Mother Russia, and specifically in a drawing room of period furniture and glossy, ebonised piano, with Oriana Buckland (Natasha No. 1) playing a Chopin Nocturne. Booth and perhaps a sewing-room crammed with Oxford Rumpelstiltskins were also called on for costumes for 19 actors or so, domestic or military; they are a delight – colourful and authentic-looking.
In each of his four masterpieces, Chekhov likes to fill his stage with a gaggle of characters who mutely observe the monologue of one or dialogue of a pair of their number, and it's all too easy to have the cast strung across the stage like 10 green bottles on a wall. Director Max Key has worked hard to combat that tendency by employing the full depth of the floor space and the handy North Wall upper gallery, and when the opportunity arises to break out from the four walls of the drawing room, he grabs it with both hands. His song-and-dance conclusion to Act II has a nicely Russian flavour, and later the onset of the falling leaves of autumn onto the Fragonard-esque garden is a delight.
The audience's principal challenge is the democratic decision to double-up (and for Irina, treble-up) the rôles. Thus Masha No. 1 exits stage left to shortly re-appear stage right in the person of actor No. 2. Close attention to character and dialogue is consequently demanded. I especially enjoyed Luke Dayhill's boldly spoken Tuzenbach No. 1, the energy of Alma Prelec as Natasha No. 2, the mannered teacher's speech of Laura Aramayo as Olga No. 1, Marshall Lockwood's world-weary army doctor Chebutykin and Magnus Gordon in the tricky part of Masha's cuckolded husband Kulygin conveyed his resilience in the face of humiliation.