… in a new version by John Donnelly
Headlong & Nuffield co-production
Directed by Blanche McIntyre
Writer: John Donnelly
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
18th April 2013
Let’s admit at the outset that I’m not fond of Chekhov. I once did lights for multiple nights on The Cherry Orchard, and it put me off. I thought Chekhov severely over-weighted in our theatre history course. I last saw The Seagull in the 70s, and disliked it, but being younger, assumed I was wrong, or just too dumb. Then I saw the brilliant Donmar Warehouse Season in 2008, with Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov, and thought ‘Anton, I got you wrong.’ But that new script of Ivanov was by Tom Stoppard.
The Seagull eschews the 25-odd other translations in favour of ‘a new version’ or re-imagining by John Donnelly, set in modern dress on a minimal set. Although there have been so many productions with elaborate lakeside vegetation, and lakeside wooden buildings and backdrops, minimal was how Stanislavki directed the play in 1898 … no set, but costumes.
The set is dominated by a massive see-saw (well, it’s a see-saw in Chekhov’s act 2), which also serves as a platform sideways (the original act 1), a platform thrusting towards the audience as a jetty over the lake (act 3), and a table (act 4) … obviously the production is two halves, with a single interval. There’s also a black frame round the stage, which creates a step at the bottom which people have to cross. It’s there because in act 4, it supports a network of five or six wires, which spring apart when Nina reappears through the audience to re-visit Konstantin. An expensive effect for one not very exciting moment is a sure sign of too large an Arts Council grant., Total waste of money. Sorry.
Let’s be positive first. It’s a lot shorter than the original. It was only a fifth the price of London productions which are no better. Even so, the gunshot signalling that Konstantin’s shot himself came as something of a relief.
Abigail Cruttenden as Irina
And another positive, the actors are all good, with special mention of Abigail Cruttenden, playing Irena. Oh, I should mention that the programme has dispensed with the surnames you may know like Sorin, Trigorin and Arkadina in favour of first names only. I would have put at least those three well-known names in brackets, especially as ‘Boris’ in the programme remains Trigorin in the script. Irena is a marvellous role, and though many lines in the play are intended to be funny, from where we were sitting, it was mainly Irena’s lines that got significant laughter. But Gyuri Sarossy was a powerful performance as Trigorin, and Pearl Chanda, amid all that stagey emoting and explaining emotions, gave Nina the most natural and real sounding lines of the evening.
Face it, The Seagull is about writing plays, with many lines about what’s good theatre, and what’s bad theatre, and what’s good acting and bad acting, and what’s good writing and bad writing. It echoes Hamlet throughout with quotes, and the central trio, Konstantin, Irina and Trigorin line up squarely with Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius. Then you have the weight of theatre history. The essential avant-garde poor reception in 1895, followed by Stanislavki directing, playing Trigorin and developing his theory of subtext and back plot. That worked with the play, because Chekhov was reacting against the melodrama of the Russian stage, so set much of the interesting stuff off stage … the challenge to a duel, the failed suicide, the seduction of Nina. So it’s all backstory.
This weight of theatre in-jokes and theatre history is why it appeals to directors, and also why I’d avoid it like the plague, because you’re sitting up and begging for a fall. Konstantin’s play-within-a-play is meant to be avant garde tosh, and lampooned as such by Irina (his mother) and Trigorin (her famous author boyfriend). Konstantin in turn attacks their trite conventional stuff, but as we’ve just seen his avant-garde attempt, set 200,000 years in the future, and starring Nina, then Irina’s stagey performance contrasts as a lot more fun. You know that it’s all about theatre and acting, and unsure what’s passing way over your head. A quote from A.A. Gill, writing TV criticism in The Sunday Times last weekend kept coming into my head, probably because I’ve been reciting it all week. He was reviewing the third series of the highly addictive dungeons and dragons bonkfest, Game of Thrones. He’s discussing why this American series uses so many British actors in the cast:
It may also be because our actors are untroubled by Stanislavski and his method, and therefore don’t need to question their motivation before going way over the top to discover their inner Brian Blessed. (A.A. Gill, Sunday Times Culture, 14 April 2013)
That’s the question throughout. Which side are we on? Irina is set up as the epitome of theatricality, versus the angst-ridden avant-garde Konstantin, the artist (wouldn’t the young Marlon Brando have done him well. Did he?), and Trigorin as a predatory narcissistic best-selling novelist and playwright (who dislikes the theatre), the Jeffrey Archer of his day.
The thing here is the minimal set has already indicated which side we’re on, and then when you use devices like someone wandering aimlessly across in front of the cast with a torch from time to time for no apparent reason, and have someone drawing suitcases on the backcloth for no apparent reason, the jump into “pretentious” has been made. People doing enigmatic and unrelated stuff in a production is the first sign of bullshit. Add those silly wires. Sometimes people cross the step to get closer to the audience, and the house lights come up, sometimes they don’t.
One of the few publicity photos, which shows the set, the see saw and Masha, but is a very minor scene indeed. But she looks great.
Then the publicity blurb warns of NAKEDNESS, groan, another tired come-on which should have died with Hair. Do it if the script needs it, don’t shoehorn it in, hoping to sell a few more tickets. If you do shoehorn it in, don’t feature it in caps in the reviews posted in the foyer. So in the play within a play, Nina has to flash her breasts. That’s it, NAKEDNESS done. On the other hand, the narcissist Trigorin jerking himself off (fortunately back-to-the-audience) as Irena showers him with praise is extremely funny and effective.
I really disliked the blocking and stage direction … many speeches were like watching tennis matches, as in dialogues the two speakers so often stood extreme right of the set, and extreme left, and emoted across the entire width of the stage. Add truly dreadful lighting, where for long periods actors had half their faces in deep shadow and the other half flaring, because for some reason the lighting designer had decided to throw the majority of light from the extreme sides. So I was negative on direction, lighting (well, extremely negative on lighting), set design, and vaguely neutral on costume. OK, the costume was dull, but not offensive. The women’s clothes were better than the mens’ or perhaps they all just looked good in them.
I didn’t like the new script much either. I don’t have a copy of a conventional The Seagull to compare it with, and I have no intention of buying one. It has been hauled effing and blinding into 2013, sometimes to good effect too, but I disliked the lack of interaction in long speeches (which comes from Chekhov of course). There were many amusing lines, but few loud laughs. There was a problem with flow, which could be the script, direction, or more likely both. It comes across as staccato, rather than interactive. A emotes. Pause. B emotes. Comic lines just aren’t timed to precision (nor left space for reaction). The first two minutes of the play suffered from lack of projection from Semyon and Masha too. A bad place to under-project.
So, all in all, I am apologetically negative about many aspects. It’s early on for a play that’s going to travel the length and breadth of the country. The actors are all excellent so flow should improve. Timing should improve, so that funny lines get pointed, and laughter from the audience (there wasn’t a lot) not get talked over. I’d re-do the lights entirely though as a matter of urgency. It could be that another month into the run, it’ll all be clicking. A one quarter to one third full Nuffield Theatre (Thursday) also gives too little feedback to the cast on audience response, so it might all zing into life in a fuller theatre in a city where people actually attend plays. If you think me too harsh, read The Salisbury Journal review, linked.
The Seagull, Chichester 2015, in David Hare’s version
GRATUITOUS SMOKING NOTE
As bad as any play I’ve seen. There are often characters sitting outside the action at the edge of the stage. They don’t need to be smoking. The poor guy who has to keep crossing the stage for no reason. really didn’t have to be smoking, and worst of all, still smoking when setting those silly wires in the semi-darkness between acts 3 and 4.
Only £2. Just as good as ones I’ve paid £4 for elsewhere. This is coupled with low admission price.
I think I’ve sussed one reason why The Nuffield has so much trouble filling seats. We’d booked by phone. Unlike other theatres which apply a 60p stamp to a 20p envelope, and charge “£3 postage” (thus swelling the coffers), the Nuffield likes you to collect. The dialogue was the funniest of the evening.
Me: Two tickets to collect. P. Viney.
BO: (long pause to peruse screen). No. Have you booked for a different night?
Me: No, April 18th, seats L23 and seats L24.
BO: Are you sure you haven’t booked for a different night? Today’s Thursday.
(five minutes pass where I give my name, address and post code. We discuss that I am clearly not Mrs K. Viney who has also booked from that address. I explain that she is my wife, and we always buy two tickets. One each.).
BO: Ah! You came to see Romeo & Juliet last year.
Me: We did.
(five minutes discussing various other bookings. We do The Curiosity Shop last month, and The Misanthrope for next month. The queue now stretches back).
At last I persuade her to look at seats L23 and L24.
Me: Can’t you look at who’s booked L23 and L24.
BO: What are the seat numbers?
Me: For L23 and L24?
Me: They’re L23 and L24.
BO: No, that’s not you. It must be a different night,
Me: Who is in L23 and L24.
BO: A Mr Vinney.
Me: I am Mr Viney … Vinney is a misspelling. Not an especially hard one to guess.
… anyway. We arrived at the box office at 7 pm exactly. I got my tickets at 7.14. That included getting my Misanthrope tickets printed, just in case we get there later for that.