REVIEW: The Seagull, Chichester Festival Theatre ✭✭✭✭

The Seagull at Chichester Festival Theatre
Anna Chancellor and Samuel West in The Seagull. Photo: Johan Persson

The Seagull
Chichester Festival Theatre
24 October 2015
4 Stars

There are many enduring images: the moon caressing the make-shift stage, built in the Lake to accommodate Konstantin’s “avant grade” play; Polina storming off, furiously shredding the flowers Nina has given Dorn; Trigorin, his back to the audience, but carefully establishing the precise moment when Nina, performing in the moonlight, rouses his idle passions; Arkadina, skipping like a tripping schoolgirl, reassuring herself of her youthful appearance; the rain hammering the estate and the lake, Nina swept up in the deluge; the bright, nearly overwhelming, sunlight almost burning the air above the Lake; Dorn, startled and genuinely horrified, when he discovers the body of Konstantin, warm but unburdened with life. Potent images all.

More enduring, more important, more potent, though, is the spectacular tableau which is summoned in the final Act, and which serves as a representation of many of the play’s troubled and tormenting themes. Dinner is served in the room adjoining the study, work separated from the business of life. Candles burn brightly on the table where the adults sup, their light soft, almost burnished, when seen through the elegant windows which line the study – work, reality, in cold, hard light; the business of life, softer, slightly unreal.

The silent stillness of the study in stark, contrapuntal synergy with the forced, societal conviviality of the dining table bursting with food, wine, laughter and guests. Reality and unreality. Truth and fiction. Lost love and love lost. Hope abandoned and hope unfulfilled, lingering still. The single revolver shot changes everything and nothing; a unique point of singularity.

This is the third instalment in Jonathan Kent’s Young Chekhov season now playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre – David Hare’s new adaptation of The Seagull. Much more famous and well known than either Platonov or Ivanov, the two plays which complete the season, and the work of this specially assembled repertory company, The Seagull has had a chequered history, mainly because of the many productions which have sought to wring tragedy and meaning in an overwrought way from Chekhov’s narrative and, by so doing, destroy the delicacy and almost symphonic nature of his observations about the foibles and frailty of humankind.

Kent avoids this trap neatly, not the least because Hare’s adaptation, the best of the three in the Season, is crisp, charming and comical, thereby magnifying the effect of the more tragic aspects. It’s a markedly short version of the play, and Kent assists the understanding of its contours and colours by interposing interval between Acts 3 and 4. This allows the four central characters of the play to stake out their positions, develop their tensions and alliances, their hopes, fears and dreams; by the time the third Act is over, the various dice have been rolled and Act Four, set two years on, is about consequences; chickens – or seagulls – coming home to roost.

The Seagull at Chichester Festival Theatre

The other boon this approach produces is that the texturing of the other characters is all properly teased out before interval. It’s clear that Medvedenko’s obsession with money will never abate and that Masha will never love him, despite his adoration for her. They will both regret what wasn’t.

It’s clear that Sorin, despite his protests about his own failures and inadequacies, has lived the life he wanted; he will regret what was.

It is clear that Polina and Shamrayev have a tenuous life as managers of the estate, constantly balancing the books, or trying to balance them, and meeting the expectations of Sorin and his sister, Irina. They regret the present and always will.

Dorn, the Doctor in the village, is clearly in love with Arkadina and possibly the father of Masha, Polina having long been his lover. He regrets what might have been.

This maelstrom of emotions and subtext makes for tense and comic situations in equal measure, and the playing of each of these characters brings out the very best in the insights the play has to offer. Jade Williams is exceptionally good as the eternally mourning Masha; she mourns the fact Konstantin does not notice her, let alone notice she loves him. Brittle and brusque, Williams’ Masha is an unrelenting force of nature. Pip Carter plays perfectly off this, making the whinging Medvedenko’s obsession with money both funny and sad but never playing the pity card. Carter’s school teacher accepts his lot mostly, so the indifference of Masha, despite marriage and parenthood, is tinged with regret but completely understandable; it is also entirely believable that his father-in- law would make him walk four miles in the rain because “it’s not as if he were a general.”

The Seagull at Chichester Festival TheatreLucy Briers makes Polina warm, but unforgivingly desperate for escape with Dorn. She manages near disregard for Sasha and Shamrayev whilst giving the appearance of dutiful wife and mother. Des McAleer huffs and puffs through the part of Shamrayev with precisely the right cruelness and fastidious rectitude. You are never in any doubt why Sasha is the way she is. Each have comic moments, perfectly executed: McAleer’s “Bravo Silva!” story is expertly judged, even with the many repetitions of the punch-line, and Briers’ rage over the flowers Nina presented Dorn is exquisite in every respect.

Adrian Lukis is blissfully good as the intelligent, watchful Dorn who misses very little and says even less. His sparking off against the irascible and complaining Sorin, a delightfully grumpy Peter Egan, is quite delicious, as are his scenes with Anna Chancellor’s tyrannical debutante Arkadina. Lukis and Chancellor share a glorious chemistry, he the predator, she the willing prey, up to a point, whereupon roles are dizzyingly reversed. Egan, too, deftly marks out the complex relationship Sorin has with his selfish, spoilt-brat actress sister. Both men bring out the best in Joshua James who is never better than in his exchanges with either Sorin or Dorn.

All six of these wonderful character actors work very effectively to create the rich and satisfying world of the Estate where the activities of the four central characters will come to a head. It is detailed, multi-layered ensemble work at its finest.

Anna Chancellor is just perfection as Arkadina, her throaty voiced, self-obsessed impetuosity and mewling combining superbly to create the ultimate bad mother-actress/lover narcissist. She is terrific in every way, whether being bored while bandaging her son’s gunshot grazed head, earnestly begging Trigorin to escape with her, goading Sorin to the point of collapse and then wailing about his health, flirting with anyone male who moves or humiliating Nina and Sasha whenever possible.

Impeccable timing together with an ability to make the outfit of the moment unexpectedly glamorous and fiendishly inappropriate simultaneously, and an unparalleled ability to talk to one person while eyeing another and contemplating a third, all while wondering whether the light is striking her to maximum effect, whether her she looks good smoking – this Arkadina is a blissful diva, spinning like a top to ensure her goals are met.

Samuel West waltzes with Chancellor superbly, and no matter how occasionally or determinedly sensuous that waltz appears, the undertone of darkness and despair is never far away. She probably needs him more than he needs her, but that is never crystal clear and the ambiguity of that condition reaps dividends. West makes Trigorin very compelling and attractive, but romantic and simplistic on the one hand and devious and self-serving on the other.

It is often said that Trigorin is Chekhov’s finest male character. While the Young Chekhov season may throw that into serious question, West certainly makes a compelling case, producing one of the most rounded and nuanced takes on the role in recent years. His rivalry with Konstantin, his need for Nina, his reliance upon Sorin and Arkadina, his distance from the minutae of the lives of Dorn, Polina, Masha and his capricious indifference – West spells it all out in a mature and involving performance of great finesse.

The Seagull at Chichester Festival Theatre
Pip Carter and Anna Chancellor in The Seagull. Photo: Johan Persson

Where the production goes slightly off the rails, unfortunately, is the point where any production of The Seagull must triumph to achieve greatness: in the playing of Konstantin and Nina, the two most mercurial characters in the play. Neither Joshua James nor Olivia Vinall really come near the intensity of understanding, the richly drawn emotional insight, or the blistering romanticism that Konstantin and Nina need to be great.

Both are sufficient to permit the play to work well enough, but neither, either with each other, or in combination with other characters, really lights up. James is too detached, not nearly as all consumed with his need for Nina and his Hamletesque jealousy of Trigorin’s success, both as his mother’s lover and as writer. He needs to be more completely engaged with the extremities of the character, and much more effort needs to be put into being Konstantin rather than merely acting the role. The two scenes which rang most hollow, were pivotal: the scene where he wants his mother to bandage his wounded scalp and then argues with her; and the scene where he encounters Nina, sodden and bereft, in the rain-soaked forest.

For her part, Vinall starts well, the first scene involving Konstantin’s play works especially well and her relationships with all the key players are credibly pinned down there. But as the play progresses, and Nina changes and aspires for different goals, there is room, well, a demand really, for greater, more emotionally complex work. Vinall does not meet this challenge sufficiently.

The result is that the play’s devastating conclusion is not as traumatic to endure as it should be. This is not the writing, direction or any issue with the other actors – indeed, Lukis, Chancellor and West are all quite magnificent in their support of the climax; the haunted, guilty, fearful look on Chancellor’s face as, swathed in candle-light, she peers into the study, or gives that impression, is quite unforgettable, as is Lukis’ reaction to Konstantin’s suicide. But without fully engaged work from James and Vinall, the play can’t fly as it might. More honest, intelligent and thought-through playing is needed.

Nevertheless, this is still a remarkably engaging and involving production of The Seagull. It may not pack the emotional punch it could or should, but it is very entertaining and the story-telling is beautifully clear, the characters mostly perfectly and vividly enlivened.

Mark Henderson’s lighting gets full reign over Tom Pye’s wonderful scenic design here: the moonlight enchantment of the lake as Konstantin’s play bombs because of his mother’s unwillingness to share the limelight; the intensity of sunlight across the lake as Trigorin and Nina realises what they want; the darkness, broken by the flickering candles, as Konstantin takes the final violent act, having mere seconds before torn up his work. The lighting is extraordinarily impressive; so too are the effects which produce the sense of the watery downpour. When Medvedenko sets off for his four mile hike, you feel your socks swell up with water.

Each of the three plays in the Young Chekhov season covers some of the same material: death by revolver; the role of a doctor in provincial Russia; love triangles; unrequited love; poverty; what breaks the human spirit. But each play deals with these subjects entirely differently. Kent’s marvellous productions reflect both the commonalities and the points of distinction, all based on honest, truthful performances, modern in tone but classical in approach.

Seeing all three plays in close proximity forces you to reassess them. In the hands of Kent, his company and creatives, Hare has resurrected the work of the young Anton Chekhov and shone a clear, dazzling light into that work.

The result is a revelation.

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