The Notebook of Trigorin
Finborough Theatre Spring 2010
Here's something that is at the very least a fascinating oddity - a late Tennessee Williams play, unproduced in his lifetime, that is his take on Chekhov's Seagull.
I first saw it a few years ago, in an inept student production that convinced me that the play itself was pretty bad, and it is one of the significant accomplishments of Phil Wilmott's London premiere that it successfully corrects that impression.
This isn't a great play, but it is an honourable failure, and one that will interest lovers of both Williams and Chekhov, even as they are aware of its imperfections.
One problem is that Williams, who characteristically worked and reworked the text over decades, could never quite decide whether this was to be a translation, an adaptation, or a new work inspired by Chekhov.
At least half of the play is essentially direct translation, and much of the rest is just minimal paraphrase. Only a few key scenes and one central characterisation have been completely rewritten - and these, alas, are by far the weakest parts of the text.
Wherever Williams imposes his vision he coarsens things - the doctor's cruelty, Masha's treatment of her hapless husband, Arkadina's blackmailing of Trigorin (threatening to out his bisexuality) to keep her hold on him, and worst of all, the final Kostya-Nina scene, which has none of the original's heartbreaking beauty.
(I don't know if bringing a dead body onstage at the very end was Williams' idea or Willmott's - in either case it's a big mistake.)
On the other hand, the change in Trigorin, while perhaps a bit too much projection on the part of the playwright, makes that character more understandable and sympathetic, and the one piece of Williams' rewriting that does work is changing Trigorin's outburst to Nina on the obsessiveness of writing into a meditation on the connection between homosexuality and authorship.
Willmott has moved the play to the American South in the 1920s in order, a programme note suggests, to capture the sound of Williams' voice. The change doesn't accomplish much, especially since the characters retain their Russian names and references.
But framing things to suggest that what we are seeing is Trigorin's after-the-fact fictionalisation of events does work nicely, and helps to bring that character to the fore, as Williams intended.
Stephen Billington makes Trigorin more approachable and sympathetic than most players of the Chekhov version are able to, while Rob Heaps nicely captures the boyish vulnerability of Kostya, especially in the early scenes, and Carolyn Backhouse has the courage to play Arkadina in all her vanity, cruelty and self-deception without trying to soften her or charm the audience.
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Review of The Notebook Of Trigorin - Finborough Theatre 2010