Outstanding in a long list of must-see revivals
was the National Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,”
directed by Katie Mitchell, with Juliet Stevenson
impressive as the vain, selfish actress Arkadina, a fading star
who has little use for family and friends except as audience to
her center-stage performance.
Martin Crimp’s new adaptation sharpens dialogue, cuts wordiness,
and clarifies secondary characters.
With a large cast giving a beautifully attenuated ensemble
performance, it’s a production Chekhov enthusiasts can admire,
even if familiar utterances are absent, though one must wonder
why Mr. Crimp changes the dialogue at the very end. Here the report
of the suicide is now shouted at the assembled group instead of
whispered as an aside to spare Arkadina.
Changing the period to the early 20th
century from the late nineteenth creates the subtle implication
that the revolution has changed nothing at ailing Sorin’s rundown
country estate. This is evident in the set created by designer
Vicki Mortimer, an appropriately drafty, vast dining room, its
cracked plaster crumbling and its furniture sparse, plus a lakeside
terrace where Konstantin’s play is staged.
Despite the revolution, the loyal servants have stayed
on, evidently their preference being to “rather bear the ills
we have/ Than fly to others that we know
not of.” As the principals
dance the tango, bicker, and complain, the servants quietly feed
and clothe them – when not breaking in on an assignation or a
Ben Whishaw, last seen on the stage as an outstanding
adolescent Hamlet, is again outstanding, here a moody, Hamlet-like
Konstantin, as he and Arkadina at the outset exchange lines from
Shakespeare’s play, and his resentment of his mother’s lover Trigorin
mirrors Hamlet’s against Gertrude.
Mark Bazeley is the successful writer Trigorin, who turns
observations into grist for his popular fiction mill, in one real-life
case with near-tragic results. When Konstantin shoots and makes a present of
a sea gull to girlfriend Nina (Hattie Morahan), she compares herself
to the seagull, but to Trigorin, it suggests a short story: a
man comes to a lake and destroys a young girl who lives there.
This foreshadows his relationship with Nina. It is a mark of director
Mitchell’s attention to detail that one of the records played
on the wind-up victrola is of Mozart’s Don Giovanni’s seduction
aria to young Zerlina, whom he later abandons.
says the seagull symbolizes “destroyed dreams,” as can be seen
to good effect in the action:
Sorin, in a touching performance by Gawn Grainger, laments
from his wheelchair that nothing he hoped for in his long lifetime
was achieved, only the opposite.
Sandy McDade’s restive Masha
is excellent as she explains that she wears black because she
is “in mourning for my life” and then, exchanges unrequited love
for marriage to another, to prolong her unhappy state.
Angus Wright is equally effective as the understanding
doctor Dorn, to whom everyone confesses, and who is the exception
in appreciating Konstantin’s avant
qualities as an actress can hardly be judged from Konstantin’s
play, which she performs in a whisper, wearing underwear with
an electric light on her back, accompanied by weird piano tones.
And her literary judgment might be questioned, as, mostly
offstage, she worships Trigorin and his writing, fervently agrees
to an assignation, bears his child, who dies, and carries on as
an actress. When she returns and, sodden with rain, encounters Konstantin, she
still rejects him, leading to his final, desperate act. National Theatre website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk