There are many reasons why the Seals Players Foundation is breaking a 13-year hiatus with a performance of Chekhov's Three Sisters, not least of which is the mirroring of art and real life. 'The play is about lost dreams and things that we might have hoped would work out,' says director Vicki Ooi Cheng-har. 'When one is past 40 and we've had this experience and that, we begin to ask ourself if we made the right choice.' She is referring to the decision to fold the professional Seals Theatre Company in 2003, 10 years after the group's last performance and 13 years after she last directed. In 1964, Ooi was 23 when she made her directorial debut with Medea by Euripides followed by Brecht's The Good Woman of Szechuan in 1966 with fellow undergraduates from the University of Hong Kong (HKU). Enthusiasm and love of drama led to the establishment a few years later of the Seals Theatre Company with fellow performers Selina Kan, John Chung, James Mark and Raphael Kung. The company gets its name from Eugene O'Neill's play Long Day's Journey into Night, which includes the lines: 'I claim Edwin Booth never saw the day when he could give as good a performance as a trained seal. Seals ... don't put up any bluffs about the Art of Acting. They admit they are just hams earning their daily fish.' In the 1960s, most theatre performances were in English, and Chinese plays were in Putonghua. Cantonese was considered a regional dialect and not suitable for stage performances. However, this meant alienating a large percentage of Hong Kong's population from the performing arts, compounded by the administration's reluctance to support the sector with either finances or infrastructure. In 1971, after returning to Hong Kong from studying a PhD in Drama at Bristol University to become a lecturer in the HKU's English department, Ooi and her colleagues set about cementing the Seals' defining feature - western classics in translation. 'If drama was to have an impact on the people of Hong Kong, we had to make good plays accessible to them in their own language,' she says. 'And by that I meant the spoken Cantonese and not the written, formal Chinese.' The job of translating fell to, among others, Jane Lai Chui-chun. Before the 1980s, actors had to interpret translations written in traditional Chinese characters into spoken Cantonese. Lai translated directly into conversational Cantonese, thus allowing the actors to better control the tone, flow and meaning of every line. Despite producing 60 performances over 20 years, competition from other mainly government-sponsored groups, dwindling audiences and sponsorship, and an exodus of performers before Hong Kong's return to China, meant the group's disbandment was inevitable. Yet it was a reading together in September 2005 and again last month, promoting books of Lai's translated works, that stirred the group's passion for performing. 'We call it revival of the salted fish,' says actress Lynn Yau Foon-chi referring to a Chinese expression that likens the dish to being dead. 'Once you start reading your old lines again you just can't stop it.' Now working for charity Shakespeare 4 All which promotes English language and drama in local schools, Yau and Ooi fail to hide their bitterness when blaming today's fast-paced consumer society for the loss of interest among audiences and young drama students in the written word and classical drama. Yau says instant messaging and text messaging has made language disposable, while Ooi targets television and the younger generation's preference for what she calls 'instant theatre' - all visual drama and short skits. 'I'd spend 120 hours on rehearsal for one play and today's kids are working on two or three plays simultaneously,' says Ooi, whose ambition is to direct a Chekhov piece. 'I'm obsessive about the play I'm working on and it would drive me crazy, but I'd have no regrets. Perhaps the classics are coming back now. Perhaps the wind of change is blowing our way again.' Despite concern over an audience's willingness to sit through 185 minutes of Chekhov, they are planning Othello for next year. Yau, who plays Marsha, says despite an average age of mid-40s for performers in the Chekhov play, they have actors in their late teens and early 20s. Funding is still an issue and private individuals have put up most of the production costs, but the group hopes corporate sponsorship will be forthcoming in the future. 'We're setting it in China because we don't have the money to make all those expensive Russian costumes,' says Yau. 'When you're strapped for cash you have to do these things.' Three Sisters, City Hall Theatre, Dec 30, 8pm; Dec 31, 3.30pm. In Cantonese with English surtitles.