Royal Shakespeare Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle
There was a time when watching a British production of Chekhov was an exercise in masochism: gloom piled upon gloom, doom upon doom, and one left the theatre feeling ready to give up the ghost. We've got past that now and have recognised what the Russians have known all along, that there is much humour in Chekhov's plays. But of course it is humour which emphasises rather than diminishes the melancholy which pervades his work.
I don't remember seeing a production of The Seagull which made the audience laugh as much as Trevor Nunn's does, and this is without playing for comedy but simply allowing the text to control the performances. The great tragedy inherent in Chekov's work is not the Aristotelian hubris and nemesis, nor is it the disturbance of the natural order that we find in Shakespeare (as in The Seagull's sister production in this season, King Lear), but it lies in the fact that human life is, at bottom, ridiculous: our great passions, whether love or ambition, achieve nothing.
In The Seagull no one's love is reciprocated, and even those who achieve what they dream of - Medvedenko's marriage to Masha, for example, or Nina's having her affair with Trigorin and becoming an actress - find that it turns to dust. Even the "great" actress, Arkadina, has to constantly reaffirm her status, even to the extent of rubbishing her son's work, and desperately hangs on to Trigorin. Her son Konstantin cannot even commit suicide successfully. Mountains of passion labour and produce nothing but a laughable little mouse.
This emphasis on getting the most out of the text is something the RSC does well, and so it is here. All Chekhov's clues about character and relationships are picked up and a play which is essentially a series of conversations with little in the way of actions becomes very gripping, without resorting to continual exhibitions of angst!
Frances Barber brings Arkadina to vivid life in a compelling performance, whilst Richard Goulding, recently gradulated from the Guildhall, captures Konstantin's anguished passions with all the vehemence and hyperbole of the young. The complexities of their relationship are well delineated, especially when she dresses his head wound, a scene which encapsulates the whole gamut of the emotions they feel for each other.
Romola Garia's Nina, too, is full of passion, youthful innocence and exuberance to begin with and, in the last act, she captures the disillusionment, despair and recognition of what her life will consist of beautifully. Monica Dolan plays the heavy drinking and snuff-taking Masha with a controlled desperation which makes the humour which arises from her words and actions almost painful.
As Trigorin Gerald Kyd is truly a hollow man: although attractive to women (witness his conquest of Arkadina and Nina) and a success as a writer, there is nothing inside but self-regard. Which is also true of Doctor Dorn - another superb performance by Jonathan Hyde - who, in spite of his professed passion for Polina (Melanie Jessop), deliberately stands outside, playing the part of the commentator, the detached observer. His final line was chilling in the extreme.
But of course most of the audience had come for Ian McKellen (who alternates the part with William Gaunt) and, yet again, they were not disappointed. His Sorin is truly delightful, a loveable, funny old man who has reached the stage of being able to look back on his life with a detached amusement - a life of failure to achieve his ambitions, his only achievement being something that he didn't want in the first place.
This is a superb production with not a weak link anywhere. Not to be missed!
Philip Fisher reviewed this production, with William Gaunt in the title role, at the New London Theatre.