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Set play

THE THREE SISTERS. By Anton Chekhov. Chichester Festival Theatre

First performed in 1901, Chekhov's third play is both a study of boredom in a provincial backwater and a prescient vision of the possibility of progress at the dawn of a new century. It shows the three Prozorov sisters' frustration with the isolation of small-town life. Olga is unmarried and dislikes her job as a teacher, Masha has married the wrong man and hates being a teacher's wife, and Irina is fed up with working in a post office.

As they dream of returning to Moscow, where they grew up, a dashing army officer, Vershinin, arrives and upsets their lives. His utopian dream of the "astonishing, beautiful life" that will one day arrive seems to predict the Russian Revolution.

Director Loveday Ingram says: "It's one of the best plays written in the 20th century. It's about being human: family love, loyalty and betrayal. And it's a play that works best when people in the audience think it's about themselves."

Despite its title, the play is as much about the sisters' brother, Andrey, and his new wife, Natasha, and how she unsettles and changes the status quo in the family when he brings her home.

Ingram is using Irish playwright Brian Friel's translation. "It's not a heavy text," she says. "He's written incredibly conversational, light and witty dialogue that retains the poetry of the original."

She plans to set the play in a world "which may possibly be Irish", but which also has shades of the original Russian setting, "just one step away from its literal time and place".

She sees the sisters as distinct characters. "Olga is the domestic creature who holds the family together, hanging on to the status quo even if it means she has to ignore Masha's affair with Vershinin."

Masha, by contrast, is "so trapped by her life that she decides to explore her sensuality through a sexual relationship", and Irina is "the life-lover, the optimist, the innocent - and the most disappointed at the end". For the director, the whole play is "about expectations and disappointments" with a message that can be summed up by one question: does it matter? Chekhov is less interested in drawing conclusions, she argues, than in getting people to question things. "The characters have to weigh up what matters most to them, and then make their decisions." For example, Andrey, who's the man of the house, and responsible for their money, gambles everything away.

"Very great tragedy always comes out of very high comedy, and vice versa. If it only explored tragedy, you wouldn't want to watch it," says Ingram.

The Three Sisters runs from August 22 to September 29. Box office: 01243 781 312

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