Thursday, 25 June 2015

Review The Seagull

The Seagull
by Anton Chekhov

The Rivals

The Seagull! Squawk! In a new version by writer Torben Betts directed by Matthew Dunster! Squawk! At Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre! OK, enough of these seagull noises!

Of course, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre made its name with the once annual play-within-a-comedy by the English bard, “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”. Here we have a Russian classic, Anton Chekhov’s human comedy and viewed as the first of his theatrical masterpieces. 

And it seems like a dream location, outdoors: water (a man-made stage lake), trees, sky.

The Regent's Park stage is reflected by a huge angled mirror suspended from the heavens for a play with a bitter yet loving satiric edge, It’s a clever touch by designer Jon Bausor in this most self-reflexive of plays about life, theatre and art, where all the characters also reflect each other in one way or another. And all just as relevant in our virtual age!  As the characters stroll on stage, the mirror, hanging like Nature's camera, gives a bird’s eye reverse view, yet frames the figures like the French and Russian paintings of the time.

TLT and her horseless scarlet troika have only ever read The Seagull and were keen to experience this early Chekhov classic tableaux 1895 play of unrequited love, disappointment, life, theatre  – oh, yes and comedy :).
Writer Torben Betts who adapted this version made quite a splash with crowd-pleasing Invincible. But Chekhov is pretty funny too in his poignant and, in TLT’s view, subtly political sort of way. If fans of Invincible come to this, they may be surprised to learn that most of the best jokes come from Chekhov. 

Irina Arkadina (a finely drawn and gracefully humorous performance by Janie Dee) returns with her lover Boris Trigorin (Alex Robertson), a successful novelist, to the family estate, home of her bachelor brother retired state councillor and lawyer, Peter Sorin (a suitably curmodgeonly Ian Redford). 

Also living on the estate are Irina’s fretful student drop-out and would-be avant-garde playwright son Constantin (Matthew Tennyson) alongside the farm manager Ilia (Fraser James), his wife Paulina (Lisa Palfrey), their disenchanted goth-like daughter Masha (Lisa Diveney). Wandering in are idealistic young Nina (Poldark’s Sabrina Bartlett), living on a neighbouring estate with her landowner father and stepmother, the old lothario of a doctor, Eugene Dorn (a relaxed and engaging performance from Danny Webb) and impecunious schoolmaster Simon Medviedenko (Colin Hoult). 

Like a seagull, the play is a delicate but tough old bird winging its way through stage conventions, symbolism, images, impressions, politics, history, the constant merging yet separation of  life and theatre.  Still, a play is a play and birds don’t normally get reviews ... ;)

While much critical writing dwells on Constantin as artist, his passion for Nina, and the mother-son relationship, perhaps the play is just as much about the rivalry between two actresses.
The women are the centre of attention (much to Constantin’s chagrin) but their positions are always fragile.  For example, in spite of her selfishness and self absorbtion, why should we doubt Irina’s assertion that her costumes use up much of her cash?  Nina, infatuated with Boris but also playing her hand against Irina, makes the decision to go to Moscow and take to the stage when she learns the actress and her lover are leaving.

Boris does leave Irina for Nina but finally abandons the young actress and his child to go back to Irina. In the end, Irina is seemingly successful,  Nina  made to drudge from one small town to another with the implication of possible prostitution to make ends meet. Yet both have lost the fathers of their children and, in a final (off stage) coup de théâtre, their children.

In fact, if it one wants to veer towards theatrical artificiality and a detective story, it’s almost as though other characters deliberately lure Nina to her fate of repertory company drudgery:  Irina herself, her brother the lawyer, the doctor all lavish Nina's acting with praise. Boris, indulged by Irina, seduces Nina, then returns to Irina and uses  the young actress’s life, made into tragedy, for his own purposes.    

Part of the unblinking toughness and poignancy of the play is the attraction and resistance to theatrical symbolism, the guying of melodrama, yet the conceding of the truth melodrama reveals. All back-to-back with hard-nosed money matters.

Seeing this production in final preview, TLT and her cabriolet were taken with the ingenious design, especially the play-within-a-play and the soundscape using recorded voice overs giving a satisfyingly visceral resonance. 

But the mash-up and experimenting with styles felt less successful. 

Nina’s pivotal final tussle against identification with the main symbol of the play, to retain her sanity, her dignity, to face reality and continue, did not come through for us. The production therefore lost its rhythm plus some of the play’s clear sightedness about human relations set within the context of a fast diminishing Russian Empire hierarchy. 

In our opinion, it felt sometimes too muddled to turn the audience into fellow travellers, enthused enough to sway at different times in favour of one character or another or to follow the story’s delicately incremental, viciously funny yet tragic development. 

Perhaps the open air location, particularly with some deliberately jarring sound effects, and large stage didn’t lend itself to the style of production. Nor is it surprising to read that director Matthew Dunster comes from the Young Vic and maybe it all would have worked better in that space. Still, an amber light for a stronger first act, ingenious design, some stand out performances and of course a spectacular park setting.

PS  What is it about seagulls? It did occur to TLT that a near contemporary of Chekhov, German nonsense poet Christian Morgenstern wrote a famous cryptic poem about seagulls  Do these writer chaps know something about gulls that we don't?;)

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