Until I saw Anya Reiss's version of The Seagull in 2012 I was firmly of the view that trying to Anglicise or update Chekhov was a VERY BAD IDEA. Could she work the same trick again with Three Sisters, I wondered? Would the patient survive a second operation like the first?
The answer in each case is yes.
Reiss's experiment at the new Southwark Playhouse, close to run-down Elephant and Castle -- the closest London gets to provincial Russia -- is definitely a success. I was engaged and engrossed throughout, and found the final act of a play I have seen many times very moving.
The problem with Chekhov, as with Ibsen, is that his plays have a strong social and historical context, and it's hard to extract the characters from their setting without imagining an equally convincing one. Here are three girls trapped in the wasteland of provincial Russia, dreaming of returning to Moscow. It's hard to translate that to the mobile world of the 21st century, where the sisters could quite easily hop on a plane. If the action is transferred to England, then it's even harder to recreate their isolated situation and make it plausible.
In The Seagull Reiss placed her characters on a remote British island, an awkward ferry and 4x4 journey away from civilisation and mobile phone signals. This time, she has imagined an even more ingenious solution; the three sisters are marooned three thousand miles away from London in a small Arab country with a British embassy attached. The army officers appear to be part of a military aid mission, and the lifestyle is that of expats in a hot climate, drinking too much alchohol and dreaming of 'home'.
There are a few rough edges, notably with the elderly servants, whose roles don't quite ring true. The connection to the Middle East is deliberately left vague in the design. Initially I thought the setting was probably the Mediterranean, somewhere like Greece or Cyprus. The only choice that really jars with me is Reiss's decision to keep the characters' original Russian names, which doesn't make much sense.
Broadly speaking, the shift works very well. The reason Reiss does this much better than Andrew Upton, whose versions of The Cherry Orchard and other Russian plays I so disliked at the National Theatre, is that she is determined to be faithful to Chekhov, rather than to embroider him or just use him as raw material for her own preoccupations. These three sisters, and the men around them, are exactly the characters that Chekhov wrote, with exactly the same weaknesses.
Olivia Hallinan, Emile Taaffe and Holliday Grainger are all plausible, though possibly a little too likeable, as Olga, Masha and Irina. There were moments when I missed the alternative interpretation offered by Declan Donnellan, in which the three sisters are all terrible snobs and rather pretentious. Taaffe gives a really visceral, heart-wrenching account of the moment in the final act when Masha collapses in grief as she embraces her lover Vershinin for the last time while he, arms flapping in embarrassment, tries to escape. in the final moments of the play, Masha takes her rejected husband, the schoolteacher Kuligin, by the hand -- another unusually touchng moment. Kuligin, normally played as a pompous and priggish blockhead, here becomes a local Arab, whose main fault is an overwhelming silliness. Like the vulgar upstart Natasha, married to the sisters' adored brother Andrey, Kuligin just doesn't fit. Chekhov's writing contains so much depth and subtext that it offers actors lots of possibilities to reinterpret their characters.
As Vershinin, Paul McGann sets up a terrific chemistry with Taaffe's Masha, whose eyes latch on to him from the moment they meet. His rendering of Vershinin's philosophical speeches about the future does not reflect Chekhov's sense of comedy, however, or the irony with which Anton Pavlovich saw the Russian tendency to spout windy nonsense as a way of escaping from reality.
Michael Garner is excellent as the sozzled and cynical doctor, and so are David Carlyle and Joe Sims as the two young officers Tuzenbach and Solyony, who fight an offstage duel at the end of the play.
There are inevitably a few rough edges when Chekhov is removed from late 19th century Russia. The social context of the play is weaker than in the original, though the characters emerge very strongly. I don't think the team of Reiss, director Russell Bolam and designer Anthony Lamble find quite the same depths in Chekhov as Cheek By Jowl's Russian company under Declan Donnellan. But they prove that a 'no samovars' policy towards Chekhov can certainly work.