Writer: Anton Chekhov (adapted by David Hare)
Director: Jonathan Kent
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
One of the National Theatre’s biggest achievements in the past year is to redefine our image of Russian drama. Gone are the cluttered and claustrophobic rooms in dark homes and in their place a sense of openness, light and nature that typify the moneyed country setting of many of the plays. Last year’s Three Days in the Country did away with rooms entirely and that freshness has been brought forward into the Young Chekhov season and is most evident in the final production of the trilogy, The Seagull.
At the home of actress Irina Nikolaevna Arkadina, a group of friends gather to watch a hopeless play written by her 25-year-old son Konstantin with a performance from their innocent neighbour, Nina, whom he loves. Fascinated by fame and desperate to escape her rural life for the stage, Nina is drawn first to the hostess and then to Irina’s lover, Trigorin, a successful writer. Two years on and Nina has everything she wanted but at a hefty price and returns to the lakeside home once more.
The Seagull is one of Chekhov’s most performed works and, given its preoccupation with theatrical people and behaviours, is an understandable favourite. But much like Platonov and Ivanov, this adaptation by David Hare, which was first performed at Chichester in 2015, is concerned with the destruction of innocence and youth. It is the younger characters, Nina and Konstantin, who markedly suffer as a result of the machinations of their seniors, while they emerge unscathed from the events of the play.
There is a more languid feel to Kent’s direction than in the other shows, and Tom Pye’s lakeside set is transformed into a magical moonlit vision by Mark Henderson’s impressive and romantic lighting design. In the first three acts, there is little urgency or a sense that danger approaches, but with so much of the drama of this play happening off-stage, Kent instead creates an almost ethereal quality that fits well with the slightly unreal nature of the artists in the story.
The tone changes noticeably in the final section; two years on when the major destructive act has already occurred, and heavy wood and persistent rain create an autumnal feel for the final gathering. This contrast of light and shade is reflected in the characters as well with unrequited love, unhappy marriages and complete self-absorption being commonplace.
The success of any production of this play depends on its two young leads and, while they both give engaging performances in the first half, the final darker passages don’t feel as calamitous as they could. Joshua James is a believably intellectual and thoughtful Konstantin, dedicated to creating something artistically new, and for all his raging against his mother’s vanity, James imbues him with a similar arrogance about his own work. Yet, his supposed devotion to Nina feels a little thin and their final confrontation lacks the necessary power to make his consequent behaviour explicable.
Olivia Vinall has specialised in emotionally troubled women in this Chekhov season, from the histrionic Sofya in Platonov to the controlling Sasha in Ivanov. Here, her Nina is most convincing in the first three acts as the innocent dazzled by fame, with a convincing wide-eyed adoration for Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Trigorin. But after the fall from grace, Vinall doesn’t quite reach enough of the depths of Nina’s shame and regret to elicit real sympathy from the audience.
As with Ivanov, the supporting cast creates a realistic community of neighbours who bicker and fawn in equal measure. Best among them is Anna Chancellor as Konstantin’s actress mother Irina – a character who receives a significant build-up from her son before she even appears. Chancellor’s Irina is equally beguiling and manipulative of those around her, using her fame and caprices to get what she wants. Equally excellent is Geoffrey Streatfield as Trigorin the somewhat louche writer who reveals the burden of his gift and fame, before charming his way to forgiveness for his transgressions later in the play.
This production of The Seagull doesn’t quite dig into the emotions as it could do and, while the finale sees Konstantin and Nina physically separated from the carefree dinner on the terrace, you may wish to hear the table talk instead. But with a focus on the surface of things and on living an imagined life either on paper or on stage, it does ask lots of questions about perspectives and whether old and new forms of theatre can exist together. With these modern and fresh takes on Chekhov’s oldest plays, the National suggests it can.
Runs until8 October 2016| Image: Johan Persson