The Seagull

Anton Chekhov
Royal Shakespeare Company
New London Theatre
(2007)

This year London is able to celebrate a small flock of memorable Seagulls. Ian Rickson started the year and ended his reign at the Royal Court utilising the services of Kristin Scott Thomas, Mackenzie Crook and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

As 2007 draws to a close, Sir Trevor Nunn follows suit on behalf of the RSC, in a production that alternates with King Lear and uses the same cast.

On this occasion, in the implausibly comfortable New London Theatre, he has another cast filled with superb actors and big names. On the opening night, old Sorin was impeccably played by a most amusing William Gaunt, who is alternating with Sir Ian McKellen in addition to playing Gloucester to his Lear.

Sir Trevor has translated the text with the assistance of the cast and an eye to humour, remaining reasonably faithful to the original but using the odd modern phrasing that can jar - would the Russian really have used "crap"?.

The action takes place in Christopher Oram's large, mildly thrusting set with Chekhovian trees and Konstantin's slowly rotting, mini-theatre hauntingly in the background.

The strength of Chekhov, like Shakespeare, is that you discover new life and meaning in his plays every time that you see them. The Seagull is a tale of multiple unrequited passions that leads to a chain of love and disappointments for all.

In a clever gesture, Jonathan Hyde as Dr Dorn has been made up to look exactly like the playwright and at times, comments like a dispassionate viewer, as the writer/doctor would have been himself. He is though not immune from the love bug that has infected everybody in the pantheon of Frances Barber as the famous actress Arkadina, in whose country home the drama unfolds.

The revelation of the evening is Romola Garai as Nina, especially as her previous London stage outing in the quickly forgotten Calico was not the wisest choice. She catches all of the ungainly awkwardness and enthusiasm of a young girl, with arm-led body language that is absolutely perfect; and then returns a more mature but fallen woman, fulfilling the predictions made for her by Arkadina's lethargic toyboy (to use contemporary parlance,) the short story writer Trigorin.

While ostensibly merely a sop to Arkadina and her vanity, Gerald Kyd plays a handsome man, who with long hair and a beard looks almost like Jesus, but has an eye for the younger woman.

He is, though, devoted not only to womanising but also his fishing and his writing. On this latter subject, he rouses himself to something like passion when he delivers a gorgeous authorial speech about writerly obsession.

Not only does Trigorin abuse the girlish Nina but, far worse, he and his lover put unrealistic ideas into her head. In doing so, they destroy her as surely as her lovelorn young beau, professional stage debutant Richard Goulding as Konstantin, shoots a symbolic seagull and, far less effectively, himself.

With wistful Russian music composed by Steven Edis for a quartet setting the tone, the love rivalries abound, sometimes cleverly mirrored by the servants between scenes.

The innocence of young love between Konstantin and Nina, initially demonstrated by his truly dreadful piece of performance art, which is understood only by the doctor, soon disappears.

Before the curtain in that play within a play has even come down, the sensitive boy's notoriously mean mother, perhaps jealous of her son's accession to adulthood and what it means to her, heartlessly treats him like a small child.

In the meantime, so many other characters are falling in and out of love or, more likely, are paired with the wrong person. Monica Dolan's drunker than ever Masha pines for Konstantin in the same way that her mother Polina, played by Melanie Jessop, did and does for the Doctor. This leaves their husbands, Guy Williams' self-important Shamraev and Ben Meyjes desperate, henpecked Medvedenko looking like fools.

And who is above all of the love play? In a limited way, it is William Gaunt as Sorin, one of those typical Chekhovian characters who has allowed life to pass him by and is full of regrets at doing so.

By the dramatic ending, all of these lives have been changed for ever but one cannot help but feel, as one of the characters says, plus ça change.

By that time, the passage of years has affected Nina so much that Miss Garai is given an opportunity to shine once more, now as a bad actress and gullible woman who accepts her lot.

The young Irish actress best known for her film work gives a performance of exceptional feeling that contrasts completely with that of Frances Barber. She takes affectation to the limit as Arkadina and in doing so demonstrates how the great actress both loves and destroys the son who makes her feel old.

Sir Trevor Nunn ensures that anyone who visits the New London will have a wonderful 3 1/4 hours that continuously entertains and feels much, much shorter.

Playing until 12th January 2008

Peter Lathan reviewed this production, with Ian McKellen in the title role, at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle.

Philip Fisher