“The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov

in a new version by John Donnelly at the Oxford Playhouse, Saturday 25th May 2013

The Seagull: a play which, when first produced, was extraordinarily radical, shifting paradigms around direction and form, but which due to the passage of time has lost some of its raw energy, so that now it’s fairly easy to view it as a conventional play. For all of Konstantin’s ranting about breaking the rules and changing the structure, in 2013 the text itself can often feel like it fails to be different.

Which is perhaps the main reason why Blanche McIntyre’s production for Headlong is so successful. By setting the piece on a blank, neutral, fairly sparse stage with a somewhat (and I hesitate to use the word as there’s a joke about it in John Donnelly’s adaptation) ‘Germanic’ feel to it, so that with just a few strong visual gestures and sharp performances, a whole new life is breathed into the play and we recognise that its arguments about the purpose of art, creation and the imagination are just as, if not more, important now than ever before.

When it comes to these arguments which at a very basic level pit Konstantin and Trigorin against each other, my sympathies have always been – perhaps unsurprisingly – with the former, despite the fact he’s a bit of a wanker (or maybe because he’s a bit of a wanker). And though I know that Chekhov is ridiculing – or at the very least questioning – Konstantin during the following speech, I find it hard not to get emotional about it:

“We’re sleepwalking into oblivion! We need to wake up. And it’s not going to happen with the old theatre. That’s why we have to tear it down”

And what’s I loved so much about this production is that it pretty much manages to theatricalise this sentiment, proving it to be a truism (though, as Andrew Haydon has pointed out, it could have gone further) without ever taking away from the debate the play presents.

Laura Hopkins’ set consists of two important central features. In the middle, the much-discussed enlarged see-saw, which begins jutting out into the wings before being pulled across on its hinge to become a pivoting platform. Characters stand or sit on either side, the argument hanging in the balance, before one can take it no more and strides to the other side as it falls with a thud. At the beginning of the second act we are in another configuration again so that the platform juts out towards the audience, evoking a pier over the lake, splitting duos in two and experiencing within ten minutes a son disowning his mother and a furious wank. Finally, during the climax, it’s simply a dinner table.

The other crucial aspect of Hopkins’ design is the canvas-coloured and slightly dirtied back wall, which acts as a notebook for our characters. For the first scene, it stays clean, but very quickly it becomes a key method of creating atmosphere, as in the first scene change two actors enter with spray bottles (presumably filled with water) and create a simple landscape with hills and birds. Throughout the next scene, it slowly fades, turning into little more than a memory. More images and words are built up throughout the play, building up into a frenzy of phrases and forgotten ideas towards its end.

What this all does is to create a fairly blank slate onto which McIntyre can paint her pictures, taking the majority of Chekhov’s symbols and wiping them clean so she and her team can build up again from scratch, adding to this production’s musings on creativity and the imagination, which ordinarily begin from nothing but very quickly become messy and complex.

In fact, the only real physical, visual symbol from the original text is the seagull itself. Which, I only properly clocked the other day, isn’t even a fucking seagull. Which then underlines the choice this production has made to very clearly be a comedy. A dark comedy, true, but a comedy nonetheless. In Donnelly’s script, each character takes him or herself extremely seriously, completely oblivious to the world around them and what they’re saying. And then delivered with earnest sincerity by the cast, who ramp the comedy levels up to high. There were various times which I sat violently convulsing in my seat, surrounded by less-than-impressed audience members.

And just as Chekhov changed the way in which his audiences watched theatre, McIntyre also asks us to be perpetually aware of levels of performance. Throughout, Donnelly has inserted asides and soliloquies to the audience not necessarily so they can express themselves but so they can verbalise ideas integral to an understanding of the play. During these moments, the house lights fade up so that spectator and performer can see one another more clearly. Then, for a good period of time in the second act, we are completely blocked off by a series of criss-crossed wires covering the front of the stage in order to create an invisible fourth wall. Some brilliant lighting from Guy Hoare comes only from on stage, so that the barrier often breached by lights in the stalls is kept up. Then, minutes later, they are torn down as Nina returns near the end of the play, entering through a fire exit in the stalls; here, she is one of us, interrupting and changing the course of the play from the auditorium.

The performances all carefully walk this line between self-aware and completely absorbed in the play, with Alexander Cobb’s Konstantin remaining knowing of his status as a character and Pearl Chanda’s Nina on the other end of the spectrum. This tension runs throughout, always bubbling beneath the surface in order to expose Chekhov’s contemplation of the self in an increasingly individualised world. Then, opposite them, are two members of the older generation, Trigorin and Arkadina (Gyuri Sarossy and Abigail Cruttenden), who both meet somewhere in the middle, aware only to themselves and each other but not necessarily happier for it as they end up engaging in a bit of masturbation by the lake.

I realise I haven’t really written anything about what this production of The Seagull says about the characters and their situations, but then my lasting impression is one of a series of images intimately connected to the ideas they present. There’s not much that can be said about the plot of Chekhov’s play which hasn’t been said before so it feels far more useful to talk about McIntyre’s aesthetic, which here finds a fragment of the radicalism which the play has lost over the past century.

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