Writer Lucy Caldwell has taken Helen Rappaport’s literal translation of Anton Chekhov’s drama and shifted it away from a Russian town in 1900, retained and adapted many of the original character names, and added local colour – like the starling murmuration over the Albert Bridge – to anchor the piece in 1990s East Belfast.
At the start of the play the youngest sibling Erin has just turned eighteen. Full of dreams and wanderlust, Amy Blair dances around the stage with her cape flowing behind as her idealistic character imagines changing her circumstances and changing the world. While aptly described in the opening act with the best (and only) use of ‘flibbertigibbet’ on stage in Belfast this year, as the years roll on the harsh realities of life, and eventually love, wear her down. [Update - I was wrong: you can hear ‘flibbertigibbet’ on both stages of the Lyric during the overlap of Bag For Life's run and the last week of Three Sisters!]
Eldest sister Orla (Julie Maxwell) is the substitute matriarch and source of common sense and practical advice. She yearns to escape the gravitational pull of her siblings that keeps her grounded in Belfast. With the fewest lines of the three sisters she still manages to use her scenes to construct a well rounded character.
“People can start again”
Though why soldiers from Palace Barracks would come to a house in East Belfast, even that of a dead military man’s family, defies Troubles’ logic.
But while a feisty lass from the lower end of the Newtownards Road might be a believable outsider in this household, it’s hard to understand how Siu Jing keeps such a hold over the household.
Up to twelve of the enormous cast litter the stage at any one time, spread out across the sparse set which looks like a giant marquee frame without the awning. The plain open plan household is animated with Alex Lowde’s bold costumes, including the best and most recognisable cartoon wig that I’ve ever seen. There’s a casual musicality to the performers (special mentions for Christine Clare and Patrick McBrearty as well as Lewis MacKinnon’s sadly truncated rendition of Wonderwall) that hints at significant talent. The singing and strumming offer welcome breaks in the acres of words that cover the play’s canvass.
The scene changes are like something out of a touring West End show you’d be more likely to see on the stage of the Grand Opera House. Director Selina Cartmell and movement director Dylan Quinn have created exquisitely choreographed routines that are a joy to watch in the gaps between acts.
Humour is used sparingly and often inappropriately, leaving the audience uncertain whether to laugh at a crude outburst or feel guilty for guffawing at a politically incorrect gag. It never swerves into the kind of dark satire that Abbie Spallen so brilliantly stirred up in Lally The Scut. A stray mention of Nelson Mandela undermines the subtlety of the rest of the dialogue and feels more like a piece of peace process bingo than a natural utterance.
A couple of practical points - there’ll be big queues for the toilets at the interval – rush down to them or you’ll be bringing your drink into the auditorium for the second half. And if you’re planning to use public transport to get home, don’t expect to be leaving the Lyric much before 10.40pm.
While embedded in the peace process timeline, this isn’t just another piece of Troubles theatre. The fact that the audience will recognise themselves in the characters’ journeys adds to the pain of Lucy Caldwell’s adaptation. While two of the three sisters have mascara running down their cheeks by the end, the lack of rawness in the writing and dialogue keeps the audience sufficiently detached to prevent their empathy rising to a level that would trigger tears in their eyes.
Three Sisters is an ambitious piece of writing rewarded with an equally ambitious production that would not look out of place on a Dublin or London stage. While the emotional aloofness undermines or limits the potential power of the play, it’s still worth catching this at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival or afterwards before the run ends on 12 November.
I attended an early preview of the show and went back to the final matinee to see what had changed. Some aspects may change later in the run. Indeed, some scenes had been shortened and a good twenty or so minutes had been chopped off the running time. While there was now one scene that captured the claustrophobia that is so crucial to Chekhov's original, some other magical moments had lost their lustre. It's interesting to see how a play changes over a long duration run.