By Anton Chekhov
Version by David Hare
From a literal translation by Helen Rappaport
Directed by Jonathan Kent
Set design by Tom Pye
The Young Chekhov Season (3 in a day)
Chichester Festival Theatre
10th October 2015 7.30 pm
SEE ALSO: Young Chekhov Season Overview (linked)
and the other two plays in the series:
Anna Chancellor as Irina Arkadina, a famous actress, age 43
Joshua James as Konstantin, her son, age 25
Peter Egan as Sorin – Arkadina’s brother, sixty
Olivia Vinall as Nina Zarechnaya, a young girl from a neighbouring estate
Samuel West as Boris Trigorin, a famous popular novelist and lover of Arkadina
Pip Carter as Medvenko, a teacher
Des McAleer as Shamrayev, estate manager
Lucy Briers as Polina, Shamrayev’s wife
Jade Williams as Masha, Shamrayev’s daughter, in love with Konstantin
Adrian Lukis as Evgeny Dorn, a doctor, age 55
Sarah Twomey as The Maid
Mark Donald as Ensemble
The Seagull was the third Chekhov in a day, a particularly hard spot. The same ensemble are back, but the new addition is Anna Chancellor (headlined on the flier) as Arkadina. Mostly, the major actors get to do two parts in the trio of plays, and as we wandered across the road from the restaurant (which is in the Minerva Theatre building) for real espresso in the coffee shop at the Festival Theatre, we passed James McArdle from Platonov and Ivanov strolling away from work, finished for the day. In The Seagull Olivia Vinall was the exception, taking her third major role of the day, Nina. Near the end, the bedraggled Nina says she is exhausted, and we felt for her … she must have been, though it never showed in her performance. We were pleased to see that the second encore line up was four: her, Anna Chancellor, Samuel West and Joshua James. In Platonov, James McArdle rightly took the solo bow, as did Samuel West in Ivanov. Olivia Vinell certainly deserved her place at the front.
The last time we saw The Seagull it was a deeply misguided production by Headlong in Southampton, and that went back to the 1898 Stanislavski production, with a near bare stage. In contrast, we were delighted that this production used the full resources of the Festival Theatre. The “surround set” of bare rough wooden planks, full size trees, weeds and rushes had been there through the other two productions, but a platform had covered most of the lake at the rear. Here the lake was fully revealed as an expanse of water across the back. It looked fantastic. As we came in, two servants were pretending to erect the white circular backdrop to the stage for Konstantin’s avant garde play, ankle deep in water. Later, we had a conservatory slide up into place. The interval came after Act Three, making for a 90 minute first part. There’s a degree of logic, in that there is a two year time gap between Acts 3 and 4, but it meant a short final part.
The elaborate set design meant major work for Act Four. Because of the lake, the conservatory which had slid up through its slot from below was too far to the rear for the drawing room in Act Four, as they had chosen to put a full dining room behind the windows for the final scene. Around ten stage crew laboured for the entire interval erecting the drawing room / study / dining room set for Act Four, another reason for placing the interval late. It looked fabulous, but you can see why Stanislavski might have gone for a simpler set at this particular point. I say this from experience in 1960s summer variety shows of Saturday night set breaking in preparation for a classical concert on Sunday. We had about ten stage crew for that too, though just four of us sweated to put it all back up on Mondays.
Arkadina (Anna Chancellor)
Costume was a surprise … though as Anna Chancellor had a full length dress for her first appearance, it took us a while to realize that it was not the 1890s, but costumed somewhere in the 1920s, unlike the first two. It worked and importantly enabled her to look more elegant.
This is far and away the most famous and performed play of the three. Apparently there are at least twenty-five translations and adaptations, and the one thing they got wrong was “seagull.” It’s a kind of lake gull in Russian that never gets near salty waters.
There’s less need for a plot summary, I suppose, but a reminder. Konstantin is a young avant-garde writer. Medvenko, a humble young teacher loves Masha, daughter of Sorin’s estate manager. Masha loves Konstantin. Konstantin loves Nina, the young girl from across the lake. Nina wants to be an actress and is infatuated with Trigorin, the Jeffrey Archer of his day. Arkandina loves Trigorin. However, Trigorin only loves Trigorin.
Arkadina (Anna Chancellor) and Trigorin (Samuel West)
Konstantin’s mother, Arkadina, is a famous and theatrical actress, with the popular novelist Trigorin in tow. Konstantin (a perfect portrayal by Joshua James) is to stage his avant-garde play in front of Arkadina . He enlists Nina to perform it … it is a monologue. The play is set 200,000 years in the future:
Everything that lives, everything that has life, everything that is … everything has lived out its cycle and died. In its place, nothing. For years the moon has shone down useless on an empty world.
As Nina intones this, dressed in a toga, against the white cloth circle of a moon, Arkadina is trying to stifle her laughter at the pretentious tosh, and when two servants wade through the lake with red lanterns (the devil’s eyes) she eventually gives up, bursts out laughing and the play has been wrecked. Dr Dorn, it transpires, actually thought it was good. His opinion as a doctor, like the doctors in both other plays, is not worth any more than his opinion as a theatrical critic.
Chekhov is having his go at the avant garde, and having a go at popular theatre too. As Arkandina and Trigorin are obviously the Gertrude and Claudius to Konstantin’s Hamlet, the whole play is a long Hamlet reference … Hamlet is mentioned in all three of the plays here.
In Act 2, Konstantin presents Nina with the dead seagull he’s shot. Nina is disgusted, but Trigorin turns up and Nina and Trigorin discuss the artistic life and creative process as writer or actress. In Act Three, we find that Konstantin has tried to shoot himself but missed (he’s that sort of guy) and only put a furrow in his forehead. He’s bandaged. Arkandina and Trigorin are leaving for Moscow, and Nina sorts out a meeting there with Trigorin for later, and gets a passionate kiss from Trigorin.
Act 4: Bingo in the drawing room. Rain outside.
In the final act, we have that elaborate drawing room/ dining room / study set two years later. We also have continual rain falling onto the lake which adds to the depressing tone. Days and weeks of drizzle. We hear that Nina was impregnated by Trigorin, lost the baby and has become an actress in second-rate provincial theatres. Trigorin has gone back to Arkadina and they’re visiting Sorin, who seems to be his nephew Konstantin’s only pal. Sorin is sick. Having revealed my age group, the text of The Seagull is mightily depressing when the doctor tells Sorin (the wonderful Pete Egan) that as he is sixty it’s hardly worth his while bothering to treat him! Nina turns up, wading through the water and recounts her sad life. She leaves, and Konstantin carefully tears up his manuscripts while we see the guests at the dinner table through the window. Conventionally, Konstantin shoots himself off stage, but here he sits in a wing-backed chair positioned so the audience can’t see him to do the deed.
Anna Chancellor was inspired casting, because she’s tall, beautiful and looks just as she does in Mapp & Lucia on TV this year. Joshua James is a very good Konstantin, and Olivia Vinall gets a chance to do the impassioned infatuated female differently the third time in the day … bare foot, bedraggled, nervous. Samuel West has a fine delivery and makes for a smooth Trigorin, but we both thought he wasn’t conceited and up-himself enough to be amusing, which he can be. The stuff about the creative process was face value, whereas I thought the pontification and bullshitting should be more obviously so. The physical business when Arkandina is trying to get him back was excellent.
I think we were Chekhoved out by the third play in a day. Fabulous set, as all day. Great ensemble, Brilliant direction.
The Seagull, Headlong, Southampton