Sunday, August 07, 2016

THE SEAGULL at the Olivier, National Theatre - David Hare meets Chekhov...

Can it really be 19 years since I saw one of my favourite plays?

Yep Constant Reader, it looks like I last saw Chekhov's THE SEAGULL in 1997 at the Donmar in a production by the English Touring Theatre. That is far too long bearing in mind the regularity I see other plays so the news that the acclaimed Young Chekhov season was transferring from Chichester to the National Theatre had me leaping to see it.  Would it be worth the leap however?

It didn't start well when one of my favourite lines - the downbeat Masha is asked why she always wears black and replies "I am in mourning for my life" - does not appear in David Hare's adaptation so I was thrown by that.  However Tom Pye's set design diverted me from my opening shock, a flooded Olivier stage brings the lake where Konstantin and Nina stage their avant-garde play right into the middle of the action although the walls of the country estate's rooms seemed to be causing trouble when we took our seats for the second half - always interesting to see a phalanx of stage techies and the sound of banging and drilling coming from behind a wall!

It's not often I say this but I think the Olivier was the wrong stage for the production - everyone seemed to have do an awful lot of travelling to get into position.  Once it is established that Olivia VinalI's Nina lives on the other side of the lake, her every appearance was made splashing noisily through the water.  She'll have trenchfoot by the end of the run. I think the more traditional Lyttelton would have been better fit. 

Although Hare's version is a bit colourless I still found much to enjoy in Chekhov's tale of wasted lives and lost opportunities for happiness.  I guess I was spoilt by my first exposure to the play: I saw a benefit performance for the Socialist Worker-funded Youth Training Centres in 1982 which starred Vanessa Redgrave and Ian Charleson in various readings and scenes, one of which was the final heartrending confrontation between Konstantin and Nina, both their lives shattered by others.

Vanessa was revisiting Nina - a role she had played onstage at the Queens Theatre in 1964 co-starring Peggy Ashcroft and Peter Finch as well as in Sidney Lumet's 1968 film version - and in 1985 I saw her again revisit THE SEAGULL at the Queens Theatre, only this time playing Arkadina opposite her daughter Natasha Richardson as Nina and Jonathan Pryce as Trigorin.

Jonathan Kent's direction had his usual clarity and unfussy dramatic through-line although I would have liked to have seen some more vivacity in the playing, the performers all seemed to play the ensemble card when there are roles in the play that come alive with some (controlled) barnstorming.  Mark Henderson's lighting is as excellent as ever.

Anna Chancellor was a commanding Madame Arkadina, almost unknowingly wanting to be the centre of attention at all times; her boredom at Konstantin's attempt at play writing all too palpable.  She came into her own with the morning-of-departure scene where Arkadina has to go from solicitation to anger to desperation to comedy: she starts being motherly to Konstantin as she changes the bandage of his 'accidental' head wound but they argue after he accuses her of financial and artistic greed, she then goes on the attack with Trigorin pleading for him to remain her lover when she realizes he wants an affair with Nina, then - secure in his agreement to stay with her - she resorts to type in making sure the servants are aware that the ruble she gave one of them is to be shared among them all.

The always dependable Geoffrey Streatfeild was a fine Trigorin, particularly in the scene where he tries to explain to the adoring Nina how it really feels to be a writer who probably will never be the top rank but whose life is still ruled by the need to write, it's a scene where you can really discern the hand of David Hare.

On the whole I liked the sulky petulance of Joshua James' Konstantin but Olivia Vinall was too over-the-top as Nina which left her nowhere to go at the end when Nina reappears as a broken-spirited regional actress, still mentally-scarred from the death of her child with Trigorin.  Peter Egan was surprisingly effective as Arkadina's  brother Sorin, forever bemoaning his life in the provincial backwaters.

The supporting cast were all okay but as I said earlier, none were particularly memorable which was slightly surprising as characters like Masha, Medvedenko and Doctor Dorn give you ample opportunities to shine.

Would I recommend it?  Yes I would but as I said, it could do with a bit less ensemble-performing and more actors taking advantage of the opportunities that Chekhov has given them.

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