Arts Review: John Byrne’s Three Sisters

Dir. Andy Arnold, The Tron, 1st – 18th October

Anyone who attended John Byrne’s recent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh will know that the artist and playwright is having something of a cultural moment. Three Sisters, the first of what director Andy Arnold calls ‘a mini John Byrne season’ at the Tron, ambitiously shifts the setting of the Chekov drama from turn of the century Russia to 1960s Dunoon.  The play follows the fortunes of the Penhalligan family and their small social circle. Variously unfulfilled, we witness each character’s downward trajectory over the course of five years, as the coping mechanisms for their frustrated aspirations gradually tear them apart. The siblings’ dreams of freedom, love and mental stimulation are replaced by monotonous work, illicit affairs and gambling debts.  

The portrayal of this claustrophobic community hangs in a perfect balance between absurdity and pathos; the cast of the play has fantastic chemistry. Louise McCarthy is particularly notable as Natasha, the ambitious social climber from Wemyss bay. This character’s descent into pettiness and domestic tyranny is reflected in her subtle shift from broad Scots to overly-enunciated middle class mimicry. Sylvester McCoy gives a dynamic performance in the role of mood-swinging, spoon-playing alcoholic, Doctor MacGillivery. Stephen Clyde and Martin McCormick also deserve recognition for their seamless and convincing character shifts.

However, as may be expected from a work by Byrne, it is the design of Three Sisters which truly steals the show. The eery, gothic quality which Byrne’s promotional posters displayed to the audience is furthered in a dark and looming set, illuminated by slanting anti-perspectival windows. In a plot which romanticises the idea of London as an unreachable nirvana, this design creates the impression that the family home is a smothering, inescapable entity. Yet in the final act, the symbols of faded grandeur removed, the full scope of Byrne’s design can be realised: no longer dark but rich. Plants twist up the set and autumn leaves roll across the stage. It is in this final act that openness and freedom seem at last possible for these characters, in their universally recognisable narrative of disappointment and resilient hope.

[Helen Victoria Murray]

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