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FringeReview UK 2016

The Seagull

National Theatre, London

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Comedic, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Oliver


Low Down

The Young Chekhov trilogy in translations by David Hare transfers – now playing in chronological order – from its triumphant Chichester season last autumn to the National’s Olivier. Jonathan Kent directs, Tom Pye’s decked set is unfussy and versatile. Jonathan Dove’s music, flute and piano alternately haunt and inhabit. Paul Groothius creates a pianistic sound-world.


Jonathan Kent’s Young Chekhov trilogy in translations by David Hare transfers – now playing in chronological order – from its triumphant Chichester season last autumn to the National’s Olivier.


Tom Pye’s set for the trilogy is unfussy, a turquoise hue to woodland outside turns through flexible stripped decking and trees. In The Seagull this is joined more insistently by that director’s choice, water including a whole lake one character cruelly plashes through barefoot: thrice. The set memorably offsets pop-up interiors and period furniture, period glass panelled doors dovetailed into the Oliver space, itself an echo of Chichester’s.


Jonathan Dove’s music, flute and piano alternately haunt and inhabit – since one protagonist Konstantin plays the piano ominously when miserable. The flute evokes airborne aspirations and desolate rootlessness in one: Nina. As elsewhere, the composer plays keyboard. Paul Groothius creates a pianistic, pointillistic sound-world.


Kent’s production of three early Chekhov plays allows the flourishing of a repertory: most actors here appear in two or three and The Seagull brings some nuanced developments of similar characters to a head.


It’s not only thrilling but overwhelming to see this trilogy so culminate in Kent’s crisp productions accruing resonances throughout the trilogy. It’s not just seeing the sweep of old, even ancient Russia through a Turgenev-thick lens, to symbolism and the new century. It’s the speed of consciousness, the acceleration of class decay and self-reliance; above all the role of women changes. Chekhov’s genius in part is to examine how partial and flawed this progress is. Will this Nina survive? The Seagull fledges the new then ravens it with the old. We’re certainly seeing the birth of the twentieth century, both historically and dramatically. There’s been nothing like this in British theatre.


The only shock in this otherwise pitch-perfect production is the loss of its great opening, Masha’s response to her wearing black: ‘I’m in mourning for my life.’ This gets compressed in this 2015 version to ‘Who died?’ ‘Me, since you ask. I’m unhappy.’ Since Hare picks up Masha’s other sartorial reference dragging her life like a dress, it’s surprising: one of the few times one’s aware of David Hare the adaptor stamping his Chekhov, aside from jarring culture-specific words like ‘scrum’ – lending public school connotations to this circa 1910-dress version of Russia (it’s implicitly set later than its 1896-ish setting). Masha’s ‘your soul and mine have no point of contact’ vanishes too. Hare is far less intrusive than for instance Frank McGuinness’ Hedda Gabler. Elsewhere he’s transparently faithful.


Masha too, is crueller than usual, as if it’s been decided a brilliant flat character impacts more than a glowing half-rounded one; Jade Williams makes the most of it. Masha the young woman beloved by schoolteacher Medvenko (Pip Carter, as in Platonov playing a despised husband though here one with a mission) is in love with Madam Arkadina’s son Konstantin who in turn loves Nina who eventually loves Trigorin, who more than even Arkadina loves no-one but himself (hence compatability). It’s a Russian La Ronde in which the young manage not to get together because the old stop them or they look the other way or give up.


Geoffrey Streatfeild’s understated musing performance suggests Trigorin almost blunders into an affair, ‘because he can’ as his own story and Nina later note. The links back to Platonov, only half-bewildered by his own attraction, or Ivanov, are clear: but Trigorin’s art has seduced him. Streatfeild’s Trigorin knows it however and uses it as part of his charm. He plays on the moment he details to Olivia Vinall’s Nina his place in literary hierarchy, as if banishing it through modesty might persuade him otherwise. Streatfeild as the almost-famous writer isn’t as down-at-heel as Chekhov suggests. Trigorin’s sleek self-absorption seems already his before he’s bankrolled by Arkadina who won’t spend money on her son. Since he’s famous enough at the outset, it’s a curious detail to translate in modern terms anyway.


Anna Chancellor’s Arkadina triumphs as herself, both energetic and cuttingly mocking – as when she systematically sabotages her own son’s frail production of his play. It’s not just Arkadina whose attention wanders, but she encourages it.


Chancellor turns on a sixpence of vulnerability parodying melodramatic actress parts. Sucking the oxygen from her son’s fledgling play, with a narcissist’s capacity to pull focus, defines her instinctive worst. Her casual worst is her admission at the end that she hasn’t time to read her son’s stories. In between her volatile self-absorbed love for her equally demanding son who’s just grazed himself with a shot, stops short of interest in him outside melodramatic ‘worry’. It’s superbly, sometimes supinely conveyed.


This climaxes as it were when Arkadina throws herself on Trigorin. Knowing she has an ingénue rival she pulls the Cleopatra stops of infinite variety, in several gymnastic positions. Chancellor revels in this conscious self-parody of a sex kitten with claws; her Arkadina at least, is flecked with knowledge of her absurdity, and her success.


This Konstantin’s apparently petulant analysis of Arkadina, her refusal to let anyone but her shine is not only accurate, but defines how they’re alike – the heedless self-absorption that for instance doesn’t even hear Doctor Dorn’s sage counsel – and different too. It’s easy to write off Konstantin’s talent. But Dorn’s right. However limited, Konstantin’s image-rich but apparently plotless work suggests a Chekhov manqué embodying the kind of weaknesses critics accused Chekhov of. Joshua James gets Konstantin’s innate shrewdness, as well as suggesting he inherits his mother’s shrewish side.


Character roles are similarly etched. Adrian Lukis’ urbane, quietly penetrating Doctor Dorn who ends up agony uncle – it seems half the cast throw their arms round him – acts as Chekhov’s moral agent with thoughtfulness without sacrificing his raised eyebrows, his quiddity as a not-quite retired lover (as Masha’s mother, Polina, Lucy Briers’ quietly desperate performance, suggests, since Dorn’s disentangling himself here echoes the daughter’s stonewalling by Konstantin). Her husband Des McAleer, retired lieutenant and estate manager, makes more than his usual mark, rightly suggesting a military tang bespeaking his old profession without rendering him pathetically put-upon. Peter Egan’s slowly ailing Sorin etches a descant of decay, marking the two years of his decline.


It’s the fortunes of the three young characters that gauges the truth of this production though. Masha isn’t allowed quite the desperate tenderness as well as spiteful frustration of her role, but Williams exudes crushed love, memorably flying into Dorn’s comforting chest.


Vinall’s Nina, an ingénue in love with acting, not a little ambitious throwing herself too on Trigorin, transforms into the heart-rending outcast whose father has set guards to prevent her even setting foot on family land. Vinall traverses her ardent trajectory, through infatuation with Trigorin and parallel slighting of Konstantin and his work which once so enchanted her, to the bedraggled figure at the end.


Losing Trigorin, her baby, for a time at least the talent he sucked out of her, trudging unnecessarily cruelly through a water surround, Vinall provides a tremulous foil for James’ vulnerable volatile Konstanin. By now he’s achieved minor success but not found his voice – his story abuts Trigorin’s in the same magazine: not quite a failed writer, Dorn notes, an unfulfilled talent, all images no architecture. Konstanin’s already heard his mother – a wonderfully casual gesture from Chancellor – not bothering to read him. Trigorin hasn’t cut pages where Konstanin’s story appears. With Konstantin’s final words concerning his mother you realize just how precisely Arkadina and Trigorin are destroying Konstantin and Nina who at the beginning express a fragile mutual love.


James with a soaring pinched register persuades us he’s too damaged by his environment: he combines his mother’s histrionics, learnt all too effectively to answer her world, with a wobbly petulance that sends him dashing off to woods or playing at suicide. He inherits too Arkadina’s indifference, in his case to Masha’s love for him.


In her stoic exchange with Konstanin, Nina doesn’t realise that confessing love for Trigorin even now so hopelessly, snaps Konstanin. The most touching scene is finally the most destructive of all hope; it’s heart-stoppingly played by these two, and deserves the palm. Vinall’s Nina has visibly shrunk, shivering in wet clothes, but to overwhelming effect she’s able to quote a whole section of that early monologue Konstantin destroyed. It’s as if Nina’s his repository, almost his salvation, but in fact her agency is catalytic. In this production she doesn’t rush to embrace Konstantin: both are frozen, literally. There can rarely have been an English-language Konstantin as fine as James, and Vinall matches him: it’s their tragedy.


Konstanin’s on-stage act unbalances the openness Chekhov leaves. Nevertheless, audible gasps confirmed it’s a conclusion that shock some first-time visitors to The Seagull’s world in this production. That’s as it should be. This is world-class English-speaking Chekhov and its fresh emphasis on the young breaks new ground. We’re lucky to be its contemporaries.