The National Theatre went through a brief phase, during the tenure of last of the great actor/managers Laurence Olivier, of recording their productions for posterity. Some, like The Merchant of Venice, were shot in cheap studio sets and on tape, and suffered from the problem of bringing theatre to life in a visual medium. Thankfully, their early 1970s production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters was shot on film, and it is beautifully directed by Olivier, who had a thorough of cinema and the unique demands of creating motion pictures.
Three Sisters an overwhelmingly successful attempt at transferring a stage play into the film medium. This is a stylish, beautifully performed and realised production that captures Chekhov’s nuanced writing and boasts some of the finest actors of the era.
The three sisters are, for different reasons, dissatisfied with their lives, and whilst stuck in a provincial backwater, a return to their birthplace of Moscow is a mutually shared aspiration. The middle sister is unhappily married to a weak man, whilst the eldest has accepted the mediocre life of a spinster schoolteacher. Olivier plays Chebutykin, a mature physician soon to retire, who had been in love with the sisters’ now deceased mother. The arrival of some soldiers, in particular cod philosopher Vershinin (Alan Bates), stirs passions in the sisters that shakes them out of their mundane lives. Yet when they realise their brother Andrey (Derek Jacobi) has run up massive debts, slowly allowing his shallow and manipulative wife Natasha (the brilliant Sheila Reid) to take over the estate, they are forced to confront the realisation that their lives are changing forever, and that they face deeply uncertain futures.
Three Sisters is one of the most engrossing and moving plays ever written, and this magnificent production does it full justice. Olivier, who was always at his best as a classical actor, is superb as the drunken provincial doctor, full of regrets and unrequited love. His generosity of direction and ensemble spirit brings out the best out of his cast. Alan Bates in particular impresses as Vershinin – arguably the most interesting male character in the play. Derek Jacobi, a few years before his rise to fame in I, Claudius, is excellent as the weak and wasteful brother, Andrey.
Two things work against the production: one is that the sound quality is poor, so that the volume has to be turned up high in order to clearly hear the dialogue. Another is that Olivier insisted on the inappropriate casting of his wife, Joan Plowright, who was too old for the part of middle sister Masha; and consequently eldest sister Olga is played by Jeanne Watts, who was even older. With the massive suspension of disbelief over the sisters’ ages taken as read, their performances at least succeed in suggesting a family unit. Plowright, for all her late blossoming under her husband’s auspices, is suitably surly and provocative as Masha. Irina is played by Louise Purnell, who is the most successful of the sisters, and brings out the innocence and idealism of the youngest sister. They are all outplayed by Sheila Reid – her Natasha is one of the best screen bitches you’re ever likely to see.
Despite a few misgivings, this is a strong rendition of a classic play performed by a cast comprising mostly phenomenal talent. It will delight fans of Olivier’s stage work, and with some imaginative dream sequences, it stands on its own merits as a well-crafted film.
Three Sisters is released as part of Network’s The British Film collection.