A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
The Seagull

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 seduction.

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.

 Ms. Mitchell 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 garde play.

 Nina’s 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