Three Sisters – Lyric Theatre – Review by Cathy Brown
By Lucy Caldwell From the play by Anton Chekhov
15 Oct – 12 Nov
There is a strong tradition in Irish theatre of adapting Chekhov to a local setting – that sense of introspection and familial obligation chiming well with the sensibilities of this country. Belfast born writer Lucy Caldwell has adapted Three Sisters for the Lyric Theatre, transposing the classic play from a provincial town in Russia in the 1900s to Belfast in the 1990s.
At first, this seems to be a perceptive move. During the final, horrific days of the Troubles and the tentative, challenging early days of the peace process, the wish to escape was a cognisant one. Orla, Marianne and Erin, raised as army children by their now dead parents, are living in the family home with their insular brother Andy (Aidan O’Neill), playing host to visiting soldiers and their feckless Uncle Beattie (Niall Cusack) and dreaming of a move to America. The more they dream, the more rooted they become and the celebrations of the opening fancy dress party slowly give way to despair and tragedy over the course of several years.
It’s a shame then that this prduction doesn’t quite gel. The 1990s setting, though thematically interesting, is not convincingly portrayed on stage. The costumes, soundtrack and set have little to mark out that period in history and as such, references to petrol bombings and soldiers moving out don’t pack the necessary emotional punch. The plight of the sisters is harder to empathise with when we know that if they wanted to go to America in 1990, it would have been easy enough to do so. This is not Brian Friel’s Phildelphia, where leaving means leaving, and the lack of true consequence or high stakes makes it harder to emotionally invest in the siblings situation.
The cast of 12 makes for a busy stage, but the acting is uneven and at times uncertain in tone. As the titular sisters, Julie Maxwell, Christine Clare and Amy Blair successfully establish their individual frustrations, but the distance between them physically on the vast set, translates into a distance in their relationships and there is little sense of the three as a familial unit. Shin-Fei Chen is a steadying presence as their immigrant sister-in-law Sui Jing and Niall Cusack’s performance as Uncle Beattie provides some comic relief. Patrick McBrearty as DJ Cool, the put-upon husband of cheating Marianne, is the only actor to truly carve out a journey for his character and his closing scenes are some of the best in the production.
Alex Lowde’s set uses most of the Lyric’s playing space and successfully suggests the sprawling nature of the family home, but in turn loses that neccessary sense of claustrophobia. As in director Selina Cartmell’s previous Lyric production Punk Rock, the scene changes (choreographed by Dylan Quinn) are stylised and ingenious.
The Lyric Theatre’s successful Vivid Faces season has explored the idea of change, both personal and societal, and while this reimagining of Three Sisters is a good thematic fit, the production overall fails to convince.