This is the third instalment in Jonathan Kent’s Young Chekhov season now playing at the Chichester Festival Theatre – David Hare’s new adaptation of The Seagull. Much more famous and well known than either Platonov or Ivanov, the two plays which complete the season, and the work of this specially assembled repertory company, The Seagull has had a chequered history, mainly because of the many productions which have sought to wring tragedy and meaning in an overwrought way from Chekhov’s narrative and, by so doing, destroy the delicacy and almost symphonic nature of his observations about the foibles and frailty of humankind.
Kent avoids this trap neatly, not the least because Hare’s adaptation, the best of the three in the Season, is crisp, charming and comical, thereby magnifying the effect of the more tragic aspects. It’s a markedly short version of the play, and Kent assists the understanding of its contours and colours by interposing interval between Acts 3 and 4. This allows the four central characters of the play to stake out their positions, develop their tensions and alliances, their hopes, fears and dreams; by the time the third Act is over, the various dice have been rolled and Act Four, set two years on, is about consequences; chickens – or seagulls – coming home to roost.
It is clear that Polina and Shamrayev have a tenuous life as managers of the estate, constantly balancing the books, or trying to balance them, and meeting the expectations of Sorin and his sister, Irina. They regret the present and always will.
Dorn, the Doctor in the village, is clearly in love with Arkadina and possibly the father of Masha, Polina having long been his lover. He regrets what might have been.
This maelstrom of emotions and subtext makes for tense and comic situations in equal measure, and the playing of each of these characters brings out the very best in the insights the play has to offer. Jade Williams is exceptionally good as the eternally mourning Masha; she mourns the fact Konstantin does not notice her, let alone notice she loves him. Brittle and brusque, Williams’ Masha is an unrelenting force of nature. Pip Carter plays perfectly off this, making the whinging Medvedenko’s obsession with money both funny and sad but never playing the pity card. Carter’s school teacher accepts his lot mostly, so the indifference of Masha, despite marriage and parenthood, is tinged with regret but completely understandable; it is also entirely believable that his father-in- law would make him walk four miles in the rain because “it’s not as if he were a general.”
All six of these wonderful character actors work very effectively to create the rich and satisfying world of the Estate where the activities of the four central characters will come to a head. It is detailed, multi-layered ensemble work at its finest.
Anna Chancellor is just perfection as Arkadina, her throaty voiced, self-obsessed impetuosity and mewling combining superbly to create the ultimate bad mother-actress/lover narcissist. She is terrific in every way, whether being bored while bandaging her son’s gunshot grazed head, earnestly begging Trigorin to escape with her, goading Sorin to the point of collapse and then wailing about his health, flirting with anyone male who moves or humiliating Nina and Sasha whenever possible.
Impeccable timing together with an ability to make the outfit of the moment unexpectedly glamorous and fiendishly inappropriate simultaneously, and an unparalleled ability to talk to one person while eyeing another and contemplating a third, all while wondering whether the light is striking her to maximum effect, whether her she looks good smoking – this Arkadina is a blissful diva, spinning like a top to ensure her goals are met.
Samuel West waltzes with Chancellor superbly, and no matter how occasionally or determinedly sensuous that waltz appears, the undertone of darkness and despair is never far away. She probably needs him more than he needs her, but that is never crystal clear and the ambiguity of that condition reaps dividends. West makes Trigorin very compelling and attractive, but romantic and simplistic on the one hand and devious and self-serving on the other.
It is often said that Trigorin is Chekhov’s finest male character. While the Young Chekhov season may throw that into serious question, West certainly makes a compelling case, producing one of the most rounded and nuanced takes on the role in recent years. His rivalry with Konstantin, his need for Nina, his reliance upon Sorin and Arkadina, his distance from the minutae of the lives of Dorn, Polina, Masha and his capricious indifference – West spells it all out in a mature and involving performance of great finesse.
For her part, Vinall starts well, the first scene involving Konstantin’s play works especially well and her relationships with all the key players are credibly pinned down there. But as the play progresses, and Nina changes and aspires for different goals, there is room, well, a demand really, for greater, more emotionally complex work. Vinall does not meet this challenge sufficiently.
The result is that the play’s devastating conclusion is not as traumatic to endure as it should be. This is not the writing, direction or any issue with the other actors – indeed, Lukis, Chancellor and West are all quite magnificent in their support of the climax; the haunted, guilty, fearful look on Chancellor’s face as, swathed in candle-light, she peers into the study, or gives that impression, is quite unforgettable, as is Lukis’ reaction to Konstantin’s suicide. But without fully engaged work from James and Vinall, the play can’t fly as it might. More honest, intelligent and thought-through playing is needed.
Nevertheless, this is still a remarkably engaging and involving production of The Seagull. It may not pack the emotional punch it could or should, but it is very entertaining and the story-telling is beautifully clear, the characters mostly perfectly and vividly enlivened.
Mark Henderson’s lighting gets full reign over Tom Pye’s wonderful scenic design here: the moonlight enchantment of the lake as Konstantin’s play bombs because of his mother’s unwillingness to share the limelight; the intensity of sunlight across the lake as Trigorin and Nina realises what they want; the darkness, broken by the flickering candles, as Konstantin takes the final violent act, having mere seconds before torn up his work. The lighting is extraordinarily impressive; so too are the effects which produce the sense of the watery downpour. When Medvedenko sets off for his four mile hike, you feel your socks swell up with water.
Each of the three plays in the Young Chekhov season covers some of the same material: death by revolver; the role of a doctor in provincial Russia; love triangles; unrequited love; poverty; what breaks the human spirit. But each play deals with these subjects entirely differently. Kent’s marvellous productions reflect both the commonalities and the points of distinction, all based on honest, truthful performances, modern in tone but classical in approach.
Seeing all three plays in close proximity forces you to reassess them. In the hands of Kent, his company and creatives, Hare has resurrected the work of the young Anton Chekhov and shone a clear, dazzling light into that work.