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The Seagull

Anton Chekhov in a new version by Christopher Hampton
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2007)

When Ian Rickson became artistic director at the Royal Court, he instituted a policy whereby this new writing theatre would produce nothing but new writing. He relaxed this a little during the Golden Jubilee year with revivals that have specific meaning for the theatre, for example Harold Pinter's unforgettable performance in Krapp's Last Tape.

Now, as his swansong, Rickson has broken his own rule and indulges himself by directing Christopher Hampton's new version of The Seagull with the kind of glittery cast that should guarantee a West End transfer, should everyone be available.

From the moment that the ghostly, cavernous face of former star of The Office, Mackenzie Crook, looms out of the shadows created by Hildegard Bechtler's dark set, this production grabs the attention and a very funny first line helps to create the right mood.

Crook might have seemed a strange choice for the part of Konstantin but his natural aura of dissatisfaction and unhappiness overcomes the actor's lack of any real stage presence.

This is a play about unrequited love and offers the kind of female lead role that any actress would die for. On this occasion, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Arkadina as a brittle, affected woman who for the most part cares for nobody but herself, although she does at least notice if not deeply love her son.

She does though prove the kind of embarrassing parent who will stultify the development of any child and it is hardly surprising that Konstantin has an inferiority complex.

He thinks himself a playwright but the "decadent gibberish" that Carey Mulligan's beautiful, innocent Nina is forced to deliver should had been enough to disabuse him.

It is after the play-acting around the lake that a circle of love begins and disasters follow. Nina soon tires of her grim admirer and is attracted by his mother's lover, Trigorin. This modest man played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, seems more interested in fishing than women but carries the glamour of a successful writer although even his friends accept that he is hardly a Tolstoy or a Zola. He also delivers a superb speech, which encapsulates the writing obsession that in extreme cases such as his can almost become a disease.

The pleasure in this play is as much in the minor parts as the major. Katherine Parkinson, who at one point gets a round of spontaneous applause, has been building a strong reputation recently and comes close to stealing the show as the suicidally unhappy Masha, a woman who follows her mother's tragic fate of loving someone from a different class.

In the case of Masha, who drinks and takes snuff to excess, it is Konstantin, for her mother it is still handsome doctor Dorn, played by Art Malik, who makes her melt. In turn, this allows their husbands, played by Pearce Quigley and Paul Jesson respectively, to bore for Russia making everyone's lives even worse.

That just leaves the typically Chekhovian figure of Arkadina's brother, the unfulfilled Sorin, a decent man who has the misfortune to be left behind to look after the house thereby missing out on life completely.

The social comedy of the early acts gives way to something much grimmer as the drama moves on two years. By this stage, the unhappy are significantly unhappier and the return of the by then destroyed "seagull", Nina, ensures the kind of ending that symbolises the impending failure of the whole of this class in bloody revolution. It also allows the very talented Miss Mulligan to shine.

Ian Rickson has brought us a worthy closure to his tenure at the Royal Court, helped immensely by his casting and the performances not only of the big names but right down the list.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher