12 October 2018
Book Tickets to The Seagull
Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull has long been used as an academic text, and this new version at the Lyric Hammersmith offers a different perspective on a classic. Retired solicitor Peter laments giving up a life in the city to move to his country estate, intent on still living luxuriously as his health begins to deteriorate. Living with him is his angsty playwright nephew Konstantin, who adores their neighbour, the starry-eyed Nina. One summer Peter’s actress sister Irina returns to visit with her newest lover, writer Boris Trigorin, in tow. So begins the destruction of the group, prompted by unrequited desires and idealised images of each other.
This new version by Simon Stephens is more of a freshening-up than an out-and-out adaptation, but in terms of accessibility he’s a more appealing choice these days than the long dead Russian. Initial scenes require those unfamiliar with Chekhov to do a little catch up with who’s who, but once the play settles into the story, it’s seriously absorbing stuff.
Whilst Stephens has undeniably modernised the script (thankfully avoiding any contrived mentions of social media in an attempt to do so), the dialogue has an almost lyrical quality to it, the substantial speeches and expository statements paying tribute to the more classical style of the original. It also has a timeless quality to it; by avoiding place names, date markers or indeed one common accent among the wonderfully diverse cast, Stephens suggests that this could be happening next to any lake in the world. It remains sharp and witty, with an act-one lightness of spirit. With some surprising laugh-out-loud moments, there’s plenty of humour to be found before the play veers into much more severe territory, and any lightheartedness in the first half is largely absent in the second.
There’s a level of knowingness too, with several asides to the audience (often amusingly overheard by other characters) and many references to acting and ‘the theatre!’ accompanied by indicative gestures towards the auditorium. An overly long speech about writers insecurities from Boris may have some relevance to the plot, but coming from an already acclaimed writer like Stephens it does feel a little bit like navel gazing. The text is best when, like Chekhov’s original play, it discusses things that have happened offstage, with an unrelenting, underlying sense of wistfulness for the past. It’s not just the words themselves that are loaded with subtext – it’s also the way they’re delivered.
This production boasts a strong cast. Lesley Sharp is on top form as Irina, an actress clinging onto her fading youth. Every move and word is a performance in the world of the play, with Irina constantly demanding attention and living her life as if she is always being watched. Everything is slightly affected, a game, a monologue, a melodrama. But Sharp gives this easily stereotyped woman a great deal of depth, swerving from uncomfortable childishness to real cruelty, returning to the charm and humour her Irina probably made her name with. Her scenes with son Konstantin (Brian Vernal, masterfully taking on a massive share of the play’s emotional heft) reveal a startling vulnerability that Irina is all too quick to suppress. Sharp is absolutely magnetic and an expert in subtlety that lends itself perfectly to the play.
Nicholas Tennant is refreshingly unpretentious as ailing patriarch Peter, and his failing health is depicted with alarming progression and physicality. He airs his regrets more openly than the others, which comes across initially as the lamentations of a dying man. However as we learn more about the others it becomes apparent that he’s the most honest one of the lot.
Cherelle Skeete plays Marcia with youthful moodiness and a quiet, painful resignation towards her lot in life, and her understated sadness is touching to witness. At the other end of scale, Lloyd Hutchinson as her estate manager father is hilarious as he recounts shaggy dog stories that fall flat among his peers. Paul Higgins as Hugo, masters the melancholy disconnect that makes him one of the most sympathetic characters of the play. He comes out of the whole affair the least damaged, but he captures well the despondency of someone watching their friends ruin their lives and being powerless to stop it.
At nearly three hours long, this isn’t the briefest of works, but it flies past. The issue of the multiple act format is overcome with some inventive transitions, and musical motifs cover any chance for awkward silences. Hyemi Shin’s multiple sets are impressive in their own right, but allow the performances to remain the main attraction, adding to the sense of timelessness. A rare production that has both style and substance, Stephens and Chekhov have made a winning match.