Thursday, 12 October 2017

Theatre review: The Seagull

Despite the bleak turn it takes in its final act, The Seagull makes by far the best case for Chekhov’s claim that many of his plays are comedies, and Sean Holmes’ production makes a particularly good example: We laugh at the characters’ flaws and vanities, before the same things turn around and destroy them. Irina (Lesley Sharp) is a famous actress on one of her rare visits back to her childhood home, a working farm whose running she’s passed over entirely to her brother Peter (Nicolas Tennant) and his staff. Still living there is her son Konstantin (Brian Vernel,) an aspiring writer who, in the opening act, is preparing to premiere a surreal new piece of theatre he’s written to family and friends. It stars his neighbour Nina (Adelayo Adedayo,) whom he’s desperately in love with, so a lot rides for him on the performance going well – but his mother has other ideas.

Unused to sharing the spotlight and unwilling to start now, Irina interrupts and mocks her son’s play. It’s a microcosm of their toxic relationship, which begins a slow but devastating deterioration in his mental health. Meanwhile Nina will also have her promising future ruined, beginning when she meets Irina’s lover Boris (Nicholas Gleaves,) a famous writer she develops an instant crush on.

As you’d expect of Holmes and the Lyric, this is a starkly modern and stripped-back production, but one in which Hyemi Shin’s designs evoke a lot of emotion and atmosphere: From the romance and fairy lights of the opening springtime scene by the lake, to the cold and claustrophobic winter setting for the climax, which takes place a couple of years after the preceding scene; Konstantin and Nina’s horizons narrow and their prospects become less bright.

Sharp doesn’t show her hand too early as the monstrous Irina; her takedown of Konstantin’s play doesn’t initially appear vicious, more insensitive and unaware. It’s only as we get to see more of her that she gives us a glimpse of how cold and controlling she is, constantly doing different accents as the actress makes sure her captive audience are reminded at all times of her range, lest she stop being the focus of attention for a second. Vernel also gives an interestingly different take on Konstantin, who instead of bookish and nervous starts out cocky and seemingly in control. It’s only as life and his mother chip away at him that the real insecurity starts to show, as does how desperate he is for her approval – starting out calling her “mother” he reverts to “mummy” as his confidence evaporates.

Adedayo’s Nina is less of a departure from how most productions play her, but is one of the strongest portrayals I’ve seen for a while, giving a clear idea of why the play’s named after her nickname; she conveys a much steeper descent from bright-eyed enthusiasm and talent to complete mental breakdown. I was less engaged by Gleaves’ Boris, but I think that’s more the way the character’s written because regardless of who’s playing him I’ve never found Trigorin, as he’s usually known, to be plausibly the hub of all this obsession and artistic expression.

Simon Stephens’ new version of the text anglicises some names and not others, leaving a deliberate vagueness about where and when the action’s actually meant to be taking place. It’s all part of the aesthetic that highlights the theatricality and contrasts it with the emotion being shown. This has mixed results: There’s an absolutely stunning moment when Lloyd Hutchinson’s boorish farm manager Leo tells one of his tedious name-dropping stories; as he describes a famous actor crying real tears on stage, he fails to notice his wife Pauline (Michele Austin) crying for real a few feet away from him, a great image that works on multiple levels of reality and artificiality. On the other hand some of the contradictions are distracting: Most notably the ongoing argument about using the horses is bizarre in modern dress, and another thing that stood out for me was, once Konstantin finds some writing success, the mention of his fanbase not knowing anything about him. If even J.K. Rowling can’t do it, I can’t see the son of a celebrity keeping his anonymity for too long in a setting where the internet exists (then again apart from the electric lights the characters don’t use any modern technology.)

The overt theatricality also sometimes adversely affects the pace, most notably in the scene changes. Having come up with a conceit that a white curtain comes down for these, only for the stagehands to be projected like a shadow play onto it, Holmes allows the changes to be too complex and they run way too long: It starts as something functional turned into something quite interesting, but by the second lengthy change it really tries the patience, especially with the oppressive use of repeated music.

But the production also makes for some interesting highlighting of characters who often fade into the background; as well as the aforementioned Leo and Pauline, their daughter Marcia’s (Cherrelle Skeete) unrequited love for Konstantin sees her take her own journey that opens with alcoholism and manages to get worse when she marries Raphael Sowole’s Simeon as a compromise. If Boris’ charm was lost on me, the fact that the much-loved doctor, Hugo (Paul Higgins) is leaving a string of disappointed mistresses in his wake is particularly clear here.

Even the servant Jacob, who has barely any lines, feels more foregrounded here, Holmes often putting him centre-stage, stoically and sometimes confusedly serving the characters imploding in front of him (and Lloyd Cooney stripping down to a swimming costume isn’t the worst thing you could put on a stage.) Overall this Seagull’s laid a curate’s egg, its clear vision and attention to detail making for some moments I think will stick with me – Sharp clutching her stomach when Irina thinks Konstantin has died, as if it’s only just hit home he came out of her body - but not everything works and the lengthy running time takes some of the impact from its climax.

The Seagull by Anton Chekhov in a version by Simon Stephens is booking until the 4th of November at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

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