Anton Chekhov, adapted by Mike Poulton
Mercury Theatre Company
Well-directed Chekhov achieves something unique: a picture of the ebb and flow of human relationships which paradoxically shows us that every individual is indeed an island. Within the lively social context of the plays, characters float in bubbles of self-absorption that usually make them oblivious to each others' suffering. Yet although Chekhov presents his characters' faults, and often gently mocks them, he is far too even handed ever to create someone who is wholly dislikeable.
The fact that two of the main characters in this Seagull come across as thoroughly disagreeable therefore presents a problem of emotional balance in an otherwise enjoyable and sensitive production. Arkadina and her lover Trigorin, the actress and the writer, are the triggers for much of the tragedy in the play. Famous, successful, envied, their selfishness and superficiality is revealed by Chekhov but they must also convince as people with genuine charisma. Nichola MaAuliffe's Arkadina is silly and petulant, but without the real charm that should also draw us to her. Oddly, Ignatius Anthony's Trigorin is a grumpy, hunched figure, not at all the attractive partner of a glamourous actress, and in his long speech about the agonies of being a writer he hits the rant button far too early, turning these fascinating lines about the writer's lot into a wearying tirade.
Michael Hadley as dry, observant Dr Dorn and especially Geoff Leesley as Sorin, Arkadina's quietly disappointed brother, achieve a much subtler effect, and Katy Stephens' haunted Masha is a sombre contrast in the first half to the lively, idealistic Nina. Elizabeth Nestor, in her first professional stage role, is a radiant Nina, transformed by her affair with Trigorin into an Ophelia-like madness, in a finely judged and riveting performance.
In many ways it feels as if this production isn't sure of its era or nationality. The adaptation is by Mike Poulton, whose version of Don Carlos has taken the West End by storm this year, and we are treated to plenty of laughter in the first half. Yet apart from the Russian of the opening exchanges, the action could be happening anywhere. The loud soundtrack of chattering Russian children that precedes and follows the play is irritating and incongruous; a gentle murmur of adult conversation might be more appropriate, but silence would be better. There's dynamic string music from composer Ansuman Biswas punctuating the play, but the note it strikes is neither Russian nor late 19th century.
Sara Perks' set works well, though. She has wisely felled the ubiquitous birches in favour of an uncluttered symbolism: a crumbling proscenium enclosing three other receding frames, and a broken wooden path leading to the lake. Functional, neutral-coloured furniture completes the feeling of timeless simplicity.
Almost always, this production avoids sounding pretentious or portentous. Alongside the laughter of the early scenes are moments when the individual tragedies are genuinely affecting.
Mention must also be made here of the stupendous one-woman performance taking place to the right of the stage, as the entire play was signed with gusto, commitment and sensitivity by Hettie May Bayley.
"The Seagull" runs until 18th June
Reviewer: Jill Sharp