Chekhov seemed like an odd choice for one of London’s more laidback theatres. Surely Russian theatrical gloom on a soft June evening was too awkward a pairing for a theatre where the pre-play picnic is often as important as the production itself?
But, of course, The Seagull is the perfect play to stage outdoors, what with Act I revolving around the performance of an outdoor play. That’s far too deliciously meta for any theatre to dismiss. And it wasn’t just the handy opener that makes Matthew Dunster’s The Seagull work so well on the moonlit stage. This new version written by Torben Betts sheds much of the gloominess that can haunt Chekhov – he described The Seagull as a comedy, although when you write endings like he did, then being labelled bleak is kind of your own fault. Betts version brings out Chekhov’s latent humour and is sharply funny and wittily acted, even irrelevant at times, the jaunty translation injecting the 21st century into the dialogue without losing any of Chekhov’s gravitas.
The Seagull is set over three days – the second and third are two years apart – at Irina Arkadin’s house in the countryside. Everyone is rigid and cruel with boredom, and ground down with love sickness. We learn quickly that all the characters are in love with the wrong person and/or desperate for success (or screwed up by it). Black-clad Masha (“I’m in mourning for my life” – an engaging Lisa Diveney) seeks vodka to numb her feelings for Konstantin Trepliov who in turn is infatuated with his neighbour Nina Zarechnaya. Even the older, married, houseguests are moping about their failed relationships and dreams. All of them want to be successful and to be in love, and in Chekhov’s world, that ain’t going to work. In short – the stage is littered with broken hearts and dreams.
The play The Seagull opens with is written by Konstantin (Matthew Tennyson) who is out to impress two women in his life, his neighbour and budding actress Nina (Sabrina Bartlett) and his mother, Arkadina a fading theatre star. Set in the garden of Arkadina’s country home, she rudely heckles her son’s work and steals the show by taking the stage to quote Gertrude in Hamlet. Konstantin is desperate to become someone and step out of the shadow that his mother and her bohemian, intellectual friends cast over him. Arkadina’s critical slaying of his play is exacerbated by her relationship with the handsome, self-obsessed novelist Boris Trigorin (Alex Robertson) who he despises. By Act III – two years later – things haven’t improved for any of the characters, in fact, they’ve got a whole heap worse.
But at least the setting at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is cheery in its loveliness. Even by the hand nature gives the stage, Jon Bausor’s set was hugely impressive. This was a living, breathing stage that was at first laid with grass and later parquet flooring, the lake (which is referenced many times in Chekhov’s script) is real enough for two of the characters to take a skinny dip in. The stage is reflected by a large mirror above it, so the actors appear in double. The change of perspective is quite dramatic, even if I’m not entirely sure what it was meant to add (other than a whole host of symbolism, obvs).
I wasn’t convinced by the booming taped monologues which seemed a little incongruous, as did the thunderous sound effect that resounded every time Nina said “seagull”. Chekhov is laden with so much symbolism we don’t need any more aural nudges.
But these are minor quibbles in what is an engaging, well executed and impressively acted production. I particularly enjoyed Janie Dee’s exuberant Arkadina that was shot through with a physical humour while also expressing her heartbreak and insecurity.
An unexpected summer, if not summery, hit.
by Suzanne Elliott