The Theatreguide.London Reviews
Theatre, Spring 2000
Chekhov's play is one of the handful of perfect plays ever written, a masterful and gasp-inducing demonstration of the undeniable truth that life is made up, not of grand tragic climaxes, but of hundreds of tiny joys, heartbreaks and cruelties.
Ostensibly, The Seagull is the story of Konstantin, a young would-be writer buried in the provinces. His mother, a successful actress, neglects him for her lover, the popular but shallow writer Trigorin; and the love of his life, Nina, doesn't return his passion. Eventually Trigorin seduces and abandons Nina, someone goes mad and someone dies.
But the real play is what happens along the way, and what happens to the half-dozen other major characters. Again and again someone opens his or her heart, exposing a pain or fear, just to have the listener, oblivious to the moment, change the subject. Again and again someone harms another, not out of malice but out of distraction or blindness.
Watch while Konstantin's sick uncle begins to realize how little he has lived, only to have the others find an old man's regrets comical. Watch while Masha, pining with unrequited love for Konstantin, sinks into alcoholism, and Trigorin calmly jots it down as a story idea. Cringe while the nonentity she marries on the rebound begs for some recognition while at the same time trying not to be as pathetic as he knows he is.
After Nina deserts Konstantin and Trigorin deserts Nina, the local doctor casually asks Konstantin what became of her. It's obviously a painful subject, but the doctor's idle curiosity blocks any compassion, and the boy is forced to recount the awful story. A moment earlier, with Masha there in the room, her mother begged Konstantin to be kind to her, blind to the humiliation she was creating.
On the other hand, see how a kind word about his writing reduces Konstantin to grateful tears or how a moment of tenderness from his mother erases a thousand slurs. By the end of the play, the accumulation of dozens of such tiny tragedies and blessings is overwhelming.
The Royal Shakespeare Company Production, directed by Adrian Noble, captures almost all of the play's glories. It benefits from a sterling performance by John Light, who conveys better than any other Konstantin I've seen the boy's adolescent fragility and the absolute reality of his wild mood swings. Penelope Wilton delicately keeps the mother from being a monster by playing her as someone so used to being a star that she hardly notices that other people exist. Richard Pasco captures the uncle's real but impotent affection for his nephew, and Niamh Linehan lets us glimpse the hysteria hiding beneath Masha's melancholy.
Trigorin, despite his plot function as villain, should be more sympathetic than Nigel Terry makes him, and Richard Johnson's doctor is also a little too one-note. But those are minor cavils. The only real weakness in this otherwise exquisite production is a rather big one: Justine Waddell is simply inadequate as Nina, capturing neither the totally vulnerable openness of the early scenes nor the wreckage of the last act. You have to fill those qualities in for yourself (it's not hard; Chekhov's intentions are there in the words, if not the performance), and if you do, this play will make you weep with its deep sadness and sheer beauty.
Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2006
Chekhov's Seagull is one of the handful of greatest plays ever written by anyone anywhere. But a first-timer would be unable to tell that from this disastrously misconceived and misdirected production.
A reminder: the writer son of an egotistical actress loves a local girl, but the actress's lover seduces and abandons her. A half-dozen other characters are all generally unhappy for various reasons, but Chekhov manages to make their banal, soap-opera lives both meaningful and deeply touching.
And virtually none of that comes across here.
Adaptor Martin Crimp and director Katie Mitchell have moved the play up to about the 1940s, for no clear reason and to no effect except some silliness. Nina now performs Kostya's play in Act One by whispering inaudibly into a microphone with an electric light strapped to her back and, in what is rapidly becoming a Katie Mitchell signature, everyone bursts into spontaneous ballroom dancing (in groups, couples or singly) at seemingly random moments. The schoolteacher's complaints of poverty don't quite work when we first see him dressed for a formal dinner.
The play is built on a string of intimate and character-revealing conversations, but it is clearly a directorial decision to emphasise the lack of privacy in this household, even though that is not what the play is about. So the most private moments are repeatedly interrupted by servants scurrying about and the quietest scenes drowned out by the clatter of tables being laid or furniture moved.
The star and main draw of the production is Juliet Stevenson, and she is as fine as you could wish, when you can hear her. But the mother is not the starring role, and the emotional burden must be carried by the young couple. Ben Whishaw manages to make Kostya a believably petulant adolescent if nothing more, but Hattie Morahan is completely invisible as Nina, capturing neither her open spirit in the early acts or her madness at the end.
As the lover-seducer, Mark Bazeley has bizarrely been directed to play almost every single moment with his back to the audience, so that he makes very little impression, while the usually reliable Sandy McDade is reduced to a mass of tics and fidgets as Masha. Only Angus Wright as the doctor manages to capture some of his charming but cruel character's depth and reality.
Whole scenes are played with the awkwardness, pauses and abrupt tone shifts of a first rehearsal, and a combination of a cavernous set and clumsy sound design means that even those actors who are not drowned out by the bustle around them have their voices muddied by reverberations.
If you love The Seagull, stay away and save yourself the pain. If you don't know it, wait for another production - any other production - for your introduction.
Royal Court Theatre Winter-Spring 2007
The Royal Court's new Seagull is a production full of buts. Almost everything about it and everyone in it is good in some ways but bad in others.
The play - arguably one of the handful of greatest plays ever written - survives, but ultimately on its own strengths rather than on what adapter, director and actors bring to it.
Christopher Hampton's new adaptation seems quite conservative as translations go. As he notes in the published text, he has reinserted a few stray lines Chekhov cut from various early versions, but there is no radical rewriting and very few bits of phrasing that sound odd to anyone who has seen the play before.
Ian Rickson's staging is also pretty straight-forward. He finds a new way to stage Nina's performance in Kostya's play in Act One that works nicely but doesn't add much beyond novelty, and he slips some nice hints of characterisation into the silent movements of the actors that cover scene changes.
He also makes sure, as too few directors do, that all the play's jokes and warm humour come through. But he seems to have guided each of his actors to a piece of their character and nothing more.
(Belated plot summary: the would-be writer son of a famous actress loves a local girl, who is seduced and abandoned by the successful writer who is the actress's lover, leaving the younger man distraught. It's nowhere near as soap-opera-ish as that makes it sound, and - as is Chekhov's mode - the stage is full of other characters each with their own little dramas.)
As the actress-mother, Kristin Scott Thomas captures perfectly the kind of blind egocentricity that makes her almost innocently unaware of the effect her casual cruelties have on others. But Arkadina is also, in her limited way, a loving mother, and also a woman frightened of ageing, and Scott Thomas shows us too little of that.
Mackenzie Crook has exactly the right lean and hungry look for Kostya and (though the character is 25) conveys his almost adolescent awkwardness and feeling of being an outsider. But he tends to shout all his lines in the same empty way, offering us little guidance through Kostya's emotional journey.
Carey Mulligan looks lovely and vulnerable, which is almost all we really ask of a Nina. But it is not all, and it would be nice if Mulligan brought something beyond her image to the role - letting us see, for example, the horror of her breakdown in the last act.
Chiwetel Ejiofor's Trigorin comes across as a rather nice guy, with nothing in the performance to help us believe he could misuse Nina so casually.
Those new to the play might not even miss some of what isn't there. But it is the colours and complexities that make Chekhov unique, and this sort of Chekhov-Lite is ultimately disappointing.
New London Theatre Winter 2007-2008
What is surely one of the handful of greatest plays ever written (Have I given away my bias too early?) gets as fine and frequently surprising a showing as you could ask for in this Royal Shakespeare Company transfer from Stratford.
One of the first surprises is how many laughs there are. Chekhov always insisted his plays were comedies, and director Trevor Nunn somehow signals to the audience within the first few seconds that it is all right to laugh at lines that have rarely generated laughter before but that turn out to be legitimately funny, like Masha's portentous 'I'm in mourning for my life.'
The laughter inevitably fades as the play gets darker, but it leaves a level of warmth and affection for the characters that remains through the evening.
This is, after all, a play about a dozen characters each so wrapped up in their own tragedies (in which they are the stars and everyone else bit players) that they have little energy to spend on being aware of each other's pains or even to avoid casual cruelties and deeper betrayals that are almost always more inconsiderate than malicious.
A quick reminder - the son of a famous actress is stuck in the country, where he loves a local girl and dreams of being a writer. But the girl has stars in her eyes, and falls for the rival writer who is the mother's toyboy.
That summary, which chooses four characters to focus on, ignores the girl who loves the son, the schoolteacher who loves her, the uncle mourning for a wasted life, and so on - and one of the glories of the play and of this production is that, wherever we focus at any moment, we are always aware of all the other dramas being lived out on the periphery.
And so this production particularly benefits from having strong performances throughout the cast, and I'm going to be unconventional by starting with some of the so-called secondary roles.
Despite occasionally slipping into a Julie Walters impersonation, Monica Dolan gives Masha an acerbically ironic self-awareness that keeps her pining over Konstantin from becoming mawkish. In contrast, Jonathan Hyde's Dr. Dorn is so blindly and blithely self-centred that there seems no point in being outraged by his casual cruelties to others.
Ian McKellen (who is also playing Lear in the repertory and needs an occasional night off) and William Gaunt alternate in the role of Sorin, and Gaunt gives a very generous performance as the old man who has never lived and now resents dying, contributing significantly to the play's warm humour.
Richard Goulding clearly takes unhappiness as the key to Konstantin, letting us see in the early scenes a familiar sort of adolescent masochism that makes misery almost enjoyable, and in the middle part of the play, when his unhappiness has faded to the level of a bearable ache, the hint that he misses it.
Romola Garai's Nina seems made of raw nerve endings from the start, her virginal enthusiasm so close to hysteria that we realise later that it was only her protected environment that kept her from succumbing to madness much earlier than she does.
Arkadina, the actress mother, is inescapably a vain, shallow and cruel woman, but Frances Barber realises and shows us that there is more to her, playing her as a woman driven by fear - of ageing, of poverty, of abandonment - and thus cruel to others as a pre-emptive defence.
And, as if to show that the opposite approach also works, Gerald Kyd makes sense out of the writer-lover Trigorin by showing how shallow and passive he is, as casually controllable by Arkadina as he casually destroys Nina.
I've frequently had occasion to cite Berkowitz's Law - when everyone in a play is bad, and bad in the same ways, the fault is the director's.
Here certainly is evidence of the converse. It can be no accident that everyone in this cast is excellent, and that their strengths and virtues reinforce each other and serve the play so well.
The triumph of this production must be credited to Trevor Nunn.
Southwark Playhouse Autumn 2012
We think of Chekhov's plays as being anchored in a specific time and place – Russia at the cusp of the Twentieth Century – so it comes as a delightful surprise that Anya Reiss's updating of The Seagull to twentyfirst-century Britain not only works so well but actually illuminates some aspects of the play and characters.
In this version, here directed by Russell Bolam and designed by Jean Chan, Konstantin writes on a laptop, Masha listens to gloomy music on her I-pod, Medvedenko complains about an expensive mobile phone plan and the horses Shamrayev won't allow his employers have been replaced by a Land Rover.
More significantly, once you get past the initial visual surprise, it makes perfect sense for Masha to be a goth girl, dramatising and half-enjoying her unhappiness. And in our age of celebrity, we understand that Trigorin's attraction for Nina is not so much that he's a famous writer as that he's famous.
(Of course it doesn't all work. The sense of complete isolation and out-of-it-ness in the country is hard to sustain, and in order to be the total innocent she must be in the first act, Nina inescapably comes across as a bit of a ninny.)
The characters and basic situation make the leap to our century quite well. Joseph Drake's Konstantin is an immediately recognisable type, the precocious but coddled adolescent who throws a petulant strop when he isn't petted enough, and Drake lets him mature into an unhappy but no longer completely self-absorbed adult until Nina's return.
Lily James may be unable to keep Nina from being a little too na´ve to be fully believable at the start, but she nicely captures the innocent openness that will leave her undefended when life turns hard.
Arkadina and Trigorin are played a little younger than you may be used to, with gains and losses. Sasha Waddell loses the panic of the ageing actress and the older woman with the younger lover, but gives a good sense of the iron that has made her a star – she wins back the wavering Trigorin through sheer force of will more than sexuality or sympathy.
Reaching for Trigorin's passivity and weakness, Anthony Howell underplays too much, repeatedly threatening to lapse into metaphoric invisibility and actual inaudibility.
Emily Dobbs presents Masha's unhappiness in a fresh way, and while I prefer Dr. Dorn to be harder and colder than the new text makes him, Matthew Kelly brings his natural charm to the role.
A couple of cavils with Russell Bolam's direction – the gun is introduced rather clumsily in the last act, and surely, when in the same act Nina declares her ongoing love for Trigorin, our focus should be directed to Konstantin.
Unlike too many pointless modernisations of classics, both Anya Reiss's adaptation and this clear and fresh production serve the original with respect while inviting us to look at it in new ways.