Anya Reiss: Navigating Chekhov

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The moment from Benedict Andrews’ bracing new adaptation of Three Sisters on which many responses seem to have fixated is its glorious, vodka-drenched rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – moody Russian existentialism blasted into contemporary, head-banging anarchy. But there is just as much contemporary resonance in Vershinin’s fading optimism for the future, an act of looking forward that feels tainted by the creeping threats of environmental crisis, or in Andrey’s disillusioned, shell suit-clad lethargy. The times are yet to outpace Chekhov.

As if to prove this continuing relevance, a sudden rash of new productions is rapidly spreading across London, including two contrasting Uncle Vanyas about to lock horns on the West End. If British theatre is currently intoxicated by Chekhov, however, his latest adaptor is remarkably immune. Speaking about the origins of the modernised version ofThe Seagull that opens at the Southwark Playhouse later this month, adding to this mounting wave of revivals, writer Anya Reiss bluntly confesses, “I’d never been particularly grabbed by Chekhov”. Approached by director Russell Bolam to update the classic play, her first reaction was to remember her lack of engagement when forced to study the text at school, and only when reading again with an eye to adapt could she begin to tease out some of the play’s enduring appeal.

“I understood what there was within that story and the characters and I saw that I’d been held back by its context,” Reiss says of her re-reading of the play. “We were always made to read things with a very reverential eye and it was quite hard, so reading it again and knowing I had permission to tear it up a little made me see what it was worth.”

Despite speaking of tearing up the text, Reiss is quick to correct herself when I press her on that phrase, clarifying that the approach she and Bolam have taken is one of respect mingled with reinterpretation. “We’ve deliberately not taken a sledgehammer to it,” she is keen to emphasise, characterising their production as one that treads the middle ground between faithful adaptation and radical revision. “I feel like I’ve tried to be true to the stories and the characters and the themes, and once you do that you’ve got more permission to play with the language.”

Reiss also feels that there is inherently more flexibility when working with plays in translation, as it’s impossible to be entirely faithful to the original. “Everything you read is always someone’s slant on it, so I felt freer to do my own thing – it’s what you have to do,” she says. “If I was trying to update Shakespeare by putting it in modern language I’d feel like a twat, but when it’s already not Chekhov’s phrases you’ve got more freedom with it.”

One of the integral elements of Chekhov’s play is its remote farmland setting, a space distinctly removed from Moscow and its seductive promises of fame and fortune. To replicate this “real sense of isolation”, Reiss and Bolam have relocated the scenes to modern day Isle of Man, a location at a definite remove from the lure of urban excitement. Reiss explains that she began by tackling these crucial points of contextual tension, working out their contemporary equivalents. “It was those questions and the new setting that did it all; they’re the key pinpoints, so once you change those everything else follows along with it.”

Although there are some elements of Chekhov’s nineteenth-century Russian setting that don’t have an obvious modern counterpart – “there was a lot of stuff about horses, that was the main problem,” Reiss laughs – on the whole she says that the play translated quite smoothly. “Compared to other Chekhovs I think it’s quite easy to update, because it’s all about fame and love and art, and those are kind of eternal things,” Reiss explains, contrasting this with the immobility of the Prozorov sisters, a predicament that is harder to explain in a world of international travel. “The crux problems they have are very personal,” she goes on, “they’re not time-specific.”

As timeless as the characters’ situation may be, I wonder how the playwright is handling the wider implications of playing with a classic text. Discussions about Reiss inevitably veer towards her precocity and the astonishment that attended her debut play Spur of the Moment, written when she was just 17. Our conversation actively eschews this typical focus on her youth – Reiss is still shy of her 21st birthday, with two Royal Court productions already under her belt – but my question about the level of pressure attached to this new production is implicitly coloured by the expectations that have settled on Reiss’ shoulders at such an early stage in her career. This is greeted, however, with a surprising lack of concern.

“It’s had the opposite effect,” says Reiss in response to my suggestion that taking on such a famous text might carry with it a certain level of trepidation. “It’s made me more relaxed because a lot of it isn’t really my problem. If you don’t like it then a lot of that’s Chekhov, it’s not really me.” With the same casual frankness that characterises the playwright’s tone throughout our conversation, Reiss goes on to admit that there was something lazily enjoyable about writing a play in which plot and characters were already taken care of, removing a layer of anxiety from the writing process.

While apparently unflustered by the possible pressures of tackling Chekhov, however, Reiss is at pains to deflect any suspicions that her version will be pointedly wedded to the present. “You do a modern adaptation, but you don’t want it to be too smug and wink-wink, with lots of references to Twitter and X Factor,” she says, deliberately naming modern touchstones that might easily be applied to the desire for fame that is explored in the play. “The reason you’re updating it is to demonstrate that what it’s about is eternal, so to then make it very much about issues we have now doesn’t serve the play in the same way.”

In the midst of these negotiations of adaptation, I mention Lyn Gardner’s recent piece about the timidity that often goes hand in hand with the approach taken to classic plays by British directors – a fitting reference point, given that Gardner’s comparison is Australian director Andrews’ version of Three Sisters. The same criticism might arguably be levelled at writers working with these classic texts in translation, all earnestly trying to stay true to the author’s intention, that enshrined tenet of British theatre. Do we need to be more open to interpretation?

“That idea that it has to be either one or the other can be quite alienating,” Reiss suggests, recoiling slightly from both the reverential and the radical. It need not necessarily be a basic choice between Nirvana and museum piece, as much as the commentary surrounding these plays might have us believe. The tactic chosen by Reiss and Bolam is to navigate a path somewhere between the two extremes. “You feel like you either have to love it in this very faithful way or you have to take a hammer to it, and I think there’s a middle ground that isn’t explored as much as it could be. That’s what we’re trying to explore.”

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