The Seagull, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

THE SEAGULL by Chekhov

The Seagull by Chekhov, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson

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

The Seagull | Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre | Until 11 July 2015

Pride & Prejudice, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

David Oakes as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice

 A balmy summer evening, men in breeches, a stage stuffed with bonnets, a punnet of juicy strawberries all accompanied by the sweet sound of honking, distant fireworks, park football games and some very fine prose from a certain Jane Austen. Surely the recipe for the perfect night at the theatre?

And in many ways it was. There’s little that can go wrong with any production of Pride and Prejudice (short of casting Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett) if you stick with the original source material. And Simon Reade’s adaptation for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is as true to Austen’s original as a 2 hour 15 minute stage play can be. The problem is there’s a lot to squeeze into these 135 minutes and at times it was like watching the Reduced Austen Company. The plot gallops along like the fast post who delivers the news of Lydia’s elopement and some of the book’s best lines get swallowed up in the resulting turbulence. Frances McNamee as Caroline Bingley seems to suffer most; some of Austen’s greatest lines come from that caustic mouth, but McNamee is reluctant, or unable, to let these bon mots linger. She also seems a little lost without her equally bitter foil, Mrs Hearst, who like Mr Gardiner, Lady Lucas and Colonel Fiztwilliam is culled for this adaptation.

David Oakes as Mr Darcy is as tall and handsome as “a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can” and embodies the uptight, obnoxious Darcy of our first acquaintance with almost as much authority as a certain Colin Firth (who, incidentally, he sounds remarkably like). But he can’t quite loosen his cravat and change up into romantic gear towards the end, again, I think because he doesn’t have the space to do it. Jennifer Kirby is as  vivacious, charming and as flawed as every Elizabeth Bennett should be.

Austen’s brilliant comic creation, the creepy, sycophantic and rather nasty Mr Collins always threatens to be a scene stealer, and Ed Birch came very close – no wonder he popped up in so many scenes where he shouldn’t have been. Deborah Bruce’s brisk direction never lets the action stop and handles the shifts in place and pace without pausing for breath.

Another casualty of the evening was Elizabeth and Wickham’s relationship, which is barely given any stage time – if you didn’t know the story well you would consider our naughty red coat inconsequential.

And, that is the crux of it, I know P&P too well and this production added little – and why would it? We can’t suddenly have Darcy eloping with Mary and converting Pemberley into flats. The beautiful Regent’s Park Theatre is the perfect setting for a night of frocks and frolics and I’m always going to enjoy an evening with Darcy, even a rather hectic one.

 by Suzanne Elliott