‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’; the next few weeks promised much in London with the West End transfer of the Donmar’s City of Angels opening at the Garrick and giving Vanessa Williams her UK stage debut, Clybourne Park was due for a revival at the Park Theatre and in mid-April Timothee Chalamet was also scheduled to make his first West End stage appearance with Aileen Atkins in 4000 Miles. In unprecedented times, theatres and all other social venues have shut their doors for several weeks. At present The National Theatre is closed until Easter Day with others expecting to remain dark until early May. Yet the effects are likely to last much longer with shows unable to rehearse and schedules being rearranged for later in the year. But all of these shows will be back and we will be surprised how quickly we return to business as usual.
One of the big casualties of the Covid-19 restrictions was Jamie Lloyd’s new production of The Seagull which had completed a week of previews and should have faced the press last Thursday before closures prevented any further performances. Marking the West End debut of Emilia Clarke and following-on from the lauded version of Cyrano de Bergerac, Lloyd’s work brings with it high expectation these days, a chance to see a text at its purest, where the emotional undercurrents of the story are given renewed clarity as Lloyd rolls back the years of performance history to attempt to rediscover the play anew.
Catching an early preview of The Seagull it was set to be another insightful interpretation of a well-known piece. It is Chekhov’s most magical play in many ways, not only is it set in a very theatrical world of actors, writers and aspiring artists but its four acts take place at the lakeside home of Pjotr Sorin (Robert Glenister), an incredibly romantic spot which the characters frequently rhapsodize over, noting the beauty of the lake, the starlit sky and the charmingly situated little theatre built in the grounds for the performance of Konstantin’s new play which opens the show. Location is incredibly important to Chekhov’s work and his characters are largely in places they don’t wish to be, either longing to return to a favoured home or trying to retain land they must sell. Here in The Seagull this beautiful country estate has a duel purpose, a perfect habitat on the surface, only one which causes plenty of claustrophobia and eventual pain for the group who gather there over the play’s two year time period.
This of course reflects the emotional strains of the play as well, the dream of becoming an actor which drives local girl Nina and of becoming a successful writer which is Konstantin’s purpose – the play he stages is an abstract form attempting to create a new type of art which is much derided by the audience. Both these roles are contrasted against successful artists whose presence causes much despair for the young aspirants; Irina, Konstantin’s mother, is a famous actor in the city and comes to visit her brother Pjotr and son but is dismissive of her son’s talent and is herself entirely involved with Boris Trigorin a famous writer. The pairing of Nina and Konstantin stand in opposition to Irina and Boris as symbols of what they want to be and are somewhat naive about how to survive as real artists.
Lloyd’s production uses an adaptation by Anya Reiss which relies entirely on the spoken word to conjure these various physical and emotional boundaries and while that’s a shame to a degree, it is entirely in-keeping with the style of this Playhouse season. Like Cyrano, designer Soutra Gilmour retains the wooden box and simplisitic staging, using microphones to emphasise the language of the play, allowing that rather than scenery to conjure the magic of the country estate. The four acts are styled like a picnic, with table and chairs used to reflect the different beats of the play with an initial line up approach facing away from the audience to allow the slow introduction of the characters and their various romantic and personal entanglements.
As the plot becomes knottier, the arrangement of chairs and people becomes more enmeshed, angular and mass-like, giving characters the opportunity to overhear what others think of them and to imply much about the offstage activities of the group. The Seagull has a number of crucial developments happen out of sight such as Nina’s ultimate fate between sections Three and Four where over the space of two years she finally leaves the area of her birth to follow Boris, pursue her dream of becoming an actress and suffers the squalid consequences of becoming involved with fame. There are major ramifications too for Konstantin who becomes the Chekhov character with the always significant gun. But no one actually leaves the stage for much of this production so words become the means to suggest the passing of time and to signify who is really present.
Reiss’s adaptation of Chekhov’s work is largely a good one, offering plenty of character variety to create the community feeling that exists on the estate. Early on Reiss allows her characters to work against Chekhov by making some quite plain statements about people’s psychological state whereas the original text is more opaque, allowing characters to imply, hint and weave around topics rather than address them directly, but as the story unfolds, the emotional clarity is given stronger reign as characters actively miss or ignore declarations of love or affection they do not care to hear.
It is tough to follow a production as successful as Cyrano however where Martin Crimp’s urban poetry not only told the story but was the story, verse so integral to the plot that it became a rare theatre fire of form, function and performance. Reiss’s adaptation is not so purposeful, and while engaging doesn’t have quite the same completeness as the earlier production. Comparisons are tenuous but having these shows in the same form – and presumably the forthcoming A Doll’s House will use the wooden box, plastic chairs, microphone arrangement as well – makes it difficult to not to assess how well it works as a technique on quite different plays.
Performance-wise, Indira Varma was stealing the show in early preview as the glamorous Irina, an actress at ease with her own fame and thoroughly enjoying the position of prestige it gives her within the family. Believing the world revolves entirely around her, even when it clearly doesn’t, Irina is dismissive of her own child, barely conscious of the other members of the estate and entirely absorbed by her love affair with the much younger Trigorin. Yet, Varma finds an emotional fragility underneath Irina’s layers of taste and certainty that feels the threat to her own happiness posed by Nina and while Irina tries to appear strong, Varma clearly demonstrates her vulnerability beneath.
Daniel Monks was also doing excellent work as Konstantin, an overly serious young man trying to develop an artistic career of his own while hoping to impress Nina who may or may not know of his love for her. Excellent as the lead in Teenage Dick before Christmas, Monks is a great choice for Konstantin, bringing a sense of the young man’s intensity and frustration with his lot in life and his speeches with Nina in particular suggest a sensitivity not dissimilar to his mother’s which is challenged later in the play when artistic renown proves far from his expectation.
Emilia Clarke may have felt at drama school that roles like Nina were not for her, and while Coronavirus is preventing her chance to perform, the part suits her extremely well. She brings a sweetness to the role initially, a young woman often physically separated from the crowd who is almost too scared to fully pursue her dream of acting until meeting Trigorin and craving the life Irina leads. As Nina’s story unfolds, Clarke introduces a more brazen manner, seeking out and dominating Trigorin’s time with little regard for any but her own feeling, and as the full consequences of that play out in Act IV, Clarke demonstrates well how little Nina was prepared for the realities of the life she dreamed of and how much further she can yet fall.
The surrounding cast provide plenty of texture as numerous unhappy love stories play out. Everyone is eventually married to the wrong person but obsessed with someone else including Tamsin Outhwaite’s Polina the wife of the Estate Manager who is in love with Patrick Robinson’s Dr Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn – everyone loves an unattainable doctor in Chekhov – while Seun Shote’s local teacher wants to marry Sophie Wu’s Masha (Polina’s daughter) but she loves Konstantin who barely notices her. And although described as one of the great male roles, Reiss gives Tom Rhys Harries as Trigorin little to do but be brooding and silent making it harder to understand why he is the cause of so much suffering for this family.
It may be on (hopefully) temporary hiatus, but this production of The Seagull was shaping up very nicely, giving a very different look to Chekhov’s work than we may have seen before but still finding the complicated undercurrents particularly among the four leads. ATG Theatres are closed until at least 26 April so let’s hope the virus abates and more people are able to see this production before the original end of the run. Whatever happens, there is great work out there just waiting to be seen. The show will go on again!
The Seagull is on suspension until 26 April at the current time and is scheduled to run until 30 May but do check the website for further updates. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog