Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Charlotte Pyke, John Kerr and Joseph Blatchley
Arcola Theatre and Runaway Theatre
We have come a long way from the days when English Chekov was done with a gloomy dying fall and you would hardly have known that Chekov called most of his plays comedies. This production of The Seagull, a new version that claims to have gone back to the writer's original text before cuts were made for its first unsuccessful 1896 production, bubbles with laughter. There is not a single falling leaf to emphasise autumnal moods, though we are still aware of a society and a class whose days are numbered and soon to disappear, like many of the great houses that used to border the lake beside which it is set..
There are the same type of people as in other Chekov plays: those who got away and those still stuck in the country or the provinces jealous of them, the cheeseparing poor set against profligate extravagance, young people looking for change, old people remembering the past, but each of them is a distinctly different individual and that is the way this cast play them.
Joseph Blatchley has directed what is very much an ensemble production. This is a family and a household, there are no disruptive star performances (though there are disruptive characters) and everyone is made a rounded personality right down to the watchful cook. Dora Schweitzer provides the simplest of settings: a floor covering of grass in front of the brick rear wall of the theatre. On it cloths and cushions are spread for actress Arkadina and her relations to watch her son Konstantin's play; a hammock is strung between the theatre's metal posts for another scene and the grass hidden by rugs and furniture when, in the last act, the play moves indoors. With minimal but effective sound effects and Neill Brinkworth's lighting matched to the very different times and seasons there is a strong sense of place.
This is a play in which almost everyone seems to be in love with some one not in love with them, much more apparent in this production that I have seen before. It sets ideas of the romantic bohemian artistic life and artistic satisfaction against the realities of life for writers and performers. Trigorin, the commercially successful novelist who is Arkadina's lover, considers everything except his facile descriptive writing is a fake; Konstantin, when beginning to sell stories can still only write of abstractions; even Arkadina herself admits that she has sometimes to appear in rubbish (though claiming to still deliver a great performance) and Nina, having thrown in everything for a failed romance and a dream of fame on stage is reduced to second rate touring.
From Jodie McNee's first line as unhappy Masha, we are encountering despair, but she treats it as a joke, and behind the summer laughter there is always the shadow of unhappiness to come. Yolande Kettle, making her stage debut is Nina, the girl from across the lake who Konstantin loves and gets to appear in his play. She has a freshness and innocence in the earlier scenes that captivates writer Trigorin with whom she falls in love but when she returns at the end of the play bruised by life you see just how little intelligence there is behind her still pretty looks. Matt Wilkinson's Trigorin is not the confident charismatic charmer so often portrayed; he is a more retiring personality but you sense a man who has sees his connection with a famous actress as a help to his career. For Arkadina he seems more the flattering younger lover (despite loss of hair), a protégé rather than a big fish in her net.
Geraldine James's Arkadina is a monstrous egoist, giving a speech of Hecuba's before her son begins his play and then chattering through it, yet in scenes like that in which she bandages her son's head wound you see a display of love and charm that is fleeting but no less real and helps explain Konstantin's continuing devotion and need for her approval. As Konstantin, Al Weaver's voice emphasises his immaturity, and he captures both his emotional nature and a gentleness that is expressed in the way he cares for his aged uncle Sorin, a lovely performance from Will Knightley, and there is particularly fine playing too from Roger Lloyd Pack as Dorn, the gentle doctor who is a more detached observer. The whole cast make these people and their situation seem very real.
The final scenes with thunder and lashing rain outside and growing tensions in the house have all the elements of melodrama but director Blatchley never lets it tip that far, making the most of flashes of humour. However much predicted by earlier events, the final moments of this totally unsentimental production come as a sudden shock and sense of hopelessness.
"The Seagull" continues at Arcola Studio 1 until 16th July 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton