FringeReview UK 2022
A New Version of Chekhov’s The Seagull by Anya Reiss, Directed by Jamie Lloyd, Set & Designer Soutra Gilmour, Lighting Designer Jackie Shemesh, Composer & Sound Designer George Dennis, Casting Director Stuart Burt CDG.
Broadcast Team Director for Screen, Tim Van Someren, Technical Producer Christopher C Bretnall, Lighting Director Gamma O’Sullivan, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher, Script Supervisor Laura Vallis, Vicky Edmonds.
We’ve all found ourselves in dreams when we’re looking in on a scene as if acted, then become part of it.
In this new version of Chekhov’s The Seagull staged at the Harold Pinter and broadcast on NT Live, it’s Jamie Lloyd’s direction and concept that seems the key driver: a rehearsal morphing from actors’ names to something lived. The new version Anya Reiss wraps round this seems conceived with Lloyd: with its present-day discussion of the absent author (Chekhov, famously), there’s all kinds of actor-banter till slowly Chekhov kicks in. It’s hallucinatory.
Slowly; the pace never varies from adagio – evoking the boredom and silent howls of the play’s characters, where action takes place offstage – like Greek tragedy, we’re reminded. Chekhov called The Seagull a comedy and some ghost of that should remain, despite its 1896 audience and a 2022 one finding ‘comedy’ an odd fit. Structurally, it is a comedy, with gunshots.
Lloyd and his actors invoke a profound engagement with Chekhov, though it’s an engagement, not a realisation. If you’ve seen The Seagull before then what you have here is a distillation of its moods, a drawing-out of key moments to twice their length. It’s not for a moment boring as theatre, though there’s longeurs.
Though set in the present day, actors seeming in caz – blue, green, one in white (Nina) and one famously in black (Masha “in mourning… for my life”) – there’s little contemporary about this production; save Arkadina (Indira Varma, withering, cajoling, charming) remarking that “on the lake you can’t get a phone signal”. Bar the haunting arrangements of pea-green chairs (a bit Ionesco) the set and costumes by designer Soutra Gilmour are a swept propless affair, with a chipboard surround suddenly becoming tenebrous, cavernous in the second half lit by Jackie Shemesh (roughly Acts Three and Four). Composer and sound designer George Dennis adds a slowed-down Rachmaninov prelude in C sharp minor (that one) picked out offstage by Konstantin (Kostya) at a funereal pace. You feel this might have been a radio adaptation, but of course it’s the visuals that leave you staring.
Everyone speaks facing out without touching or for the most part looking at each other; and there’s some wonderful characterisations. There’s one breaking of the new third wall with the famous kiss between successful but meretricious writer Trigorin (a dashing, if distracted-seeming Tom Rhys Harries) and aspiring actress Nina (Emilia Clarke, rapt and hypnotically inward). That’s after a long spell when as Trigorin’s long-term lover actress Arkadina first tears apart then mollycoddles her son wannabe writer Kostya (Daniel Monks, haunting in his withdrawals), the two burgeoning lovers simply gaze at each other, frozen, behind mother and son, chairs to the wall.
The way Reiss’s text and this production plays with Chekhov – one audience member called it a Dr Chekhov therapy session – makes the original seem more intense when it arrives. Though we never see Kostya’s play in this production, it’s as though Kostya’s imagined stasis and drenched symbolism informs it.
Outstanding is Jason Barnett’s Shamrayev – Reiss building him a comic part of real stature, and his wide-eyed incapacity to understand comes across as supreme wisdom. His acerbic wife Polina (Sara Powell) looks out for something better in Dr Dorn – Gerald Kyd, excellent, both Chekhov’s wise representative and here even “at fifty-five I’m too old” a believably sincere heartbreaker; though shorn of a few of his most characterful pronouncements on Kostya.
There’s strong work too from Sorin (Robert Glenister) as Arkadina’s retired High Court judge elder brother, repining his failure as lover and even writer, falling asleep, needing Dorn’s stern fillips. The double-act of eventual wife Masha (Sophie Wu, terrifyingly flat in her delivery, comedically desolate) and the man she reluctantly marries, schoolteacher and responsible dolt Medvedenko (Mika Onyx Johnson) who in his pauses and moments where Masha’s tongue sinks in, wrenches pathos from his rejection.
Like Shamrayev, Arkadina’s part has reinvented lines, and Varma makes the most of them: almost dizzyingly capricious in cruelty and switchbacks to concern or passion or outrage at her supposed extravagance. It’s the intensity of these things together that ensures Chekhov lifts her against stereotype. Varma enjoys Arkadina’s steeliness and languorous need for a lover rather than showing passion or even bandaging anyone – this production only allows Nina and Trigorin, then Nina and Kostya, anywhere near touching range.
Clarke is certainly rapt, ecstatically recalling happiness or anticipating it, heart-breaking when she confesses her life to Kostya. Monks slowly rises, most expressive when with Nina, no-one else; he’s almost completely still. Rhys Harries in Trigorin’s self-obsession seems musing and almost forgetting Nina’s name at the outset, seems to think of her as “idea” the prelude to his having one for a story. With bitter irony, it’s suggested Kostya’s plays (he’s more successful in his 21st century avatar than with Chekhov’s impressionist story-writer) are like an idea of a play by a Trigorin character. The sense of someone ever-withdrawn as Rhys Harries is, is all you need to know of Nina’s fate with him.
There’s some production surprises that might wake anyone tempted to do a Sorin and nod off. Though this is a Seagull for the initiated, a meditation rather than the play itself, it’s still a truthful distillation, wholly sincere, actors uniformly excellent with outstanding ones mentioned above.
Screen director Tim Van Someren allows the mesmeric flatness to speak for itself, with a few pulls away to angles inclusive of the audience as characters jump down from the stage, or a few close-ups.
With rain torrenting outside in this production relay, it’s piquant the one great line Nina’s not allowed to speak – “Happy is he who on such a night as this has a roof over his head” – is spoken by the weather outside. With an unforced truth.