Writer: Anton Chekhov, a new version by Anya Reiss
Director: Russell Bolam
Reviewer: Natalie Barker
Hot on the heels of a radically new version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Young Vic comes a modernised version of the Russian playwright’s early comedy, The Seagull. This version by Anya Reiss keeps a firm grip on that special Russian brand of melancholy while locating the action emphatically in the here and now. Reiss gives us references to mobile phone contracts and Jeeps; it’s less of the samovars, more of the laptops. And this contrast between what we expect from Chekhov and what we actually get only serves to heighten the comedy and throw the tragic elements into sharper relief.
The tragedy at the heart of the play is made more profound by the ordinariness that the modern setting lends to the action. Situated on the Isle of Man instead of deepest darkest rural Russia, Reiss’ setting has a hint of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem about it. Although recognisably English pastoral, it isn’t a safe haven – there are dangerous elements at work in this liminal zone. The protagonists are at the edge of the world, trapped and hemmed in on all sides by the sea. The young writer Konstantin lives on an estate run by his elderly uncle Petrusha, visited by his successful actress mother who swans in from London only to be exasperated by the heat of summer and by having no means of getting to the ferry to effect her escape. The pressure mounts until Konstantin, in a fit of jealousy and unrequited love, attempts suicide. Even this isn’t enough to keep his mother by his side and she departs for London, leaving Konstantin behind, frustrated and alone.
But the real sorrow lies not in the fate of the petulant Konstantin, played terrifically by Joseph Drake, but with Nina, the seagull of the title. Nina is Konstantin’s plaything, the puppet he gives voice to in the play he has written for her to perform in front of the assembled audience at the estate. When she manages to escape her domineering father at home she’s suffocated by Konstantin and his strange behaviour; his poetic gesture of presenting her with a seagull he has shot misfires and pushes Nina further away from him into the arms of the famous writer Trigorin. Nina has a very modern obsession with fame which, in Reiss’ version of the play, draws her to London to seek her fortune as an actress. When Trigorin sees the dead seagull he muses on a girl who lives by a lake, free like a seagull, ‘then a man comes along and with nothing better to do, destroys her’. Both Konstantin and Trigorin are her destroyers; narcissistically obsessed with their own talent they use Nina in a game of one-upmanship.
The ensemble cast directed by Russell Bolam is top notch. Matthew Kelly as Dorn makes the most of a rather dull part, Emily Dobbs is deliciously spiky as a goth Masha and Michael Beckley is superb as the unhinged Shamrayev. Malcolm Tierney deserves a mention for his Sorin who is by turns pitiably frail and waspishly witty. Nina, played by Lily James, started youthful and bouncy only to return in the last act as a depressed shell of her former self. James gave a committed performance but was rather hyperactive in places and gave Nina a handful of affected tics which were distracting. Perhaps this is where the modern setting both succeeds and fails: the tragedy is much more real when portrayed by characters like ourselves, not distanced by time and constrained by outdated social mores, yet we hope modern women are more resilient than the vulnerable Nina. A Nina for today’s audience needs to be young and impressionable but also to have a much more dangerous self-destructive quality at her core which James does hint at. The heightened comedy of Reiss’ version succeeds because it keeps the sting in the play’s tail.