The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon ***
Michael Billington, The Guardian, Thursday February 3, 2000
In 1896 Chekhov's play had a disastrous first night in St Petersburg. In Stratford-upon-Avon it nearly had an incendiary one. In the first act the curtains of Konstantin's mock-theatre brushed against candle-flame and caught fire. Prompt action by the production manager, Jasper Gilbert, who leapt up on stage and put out the fire prevented the flames spreading and may well have helped save this beautiful wooden theatre. After 10 minutes or so, the play resumed but it was an unnerving experience for actors and audience alike.
But how did you enjoy the play, Mrs Lincoln? In the circumstances, it is difficult to say but I feel Adrian Noble's production is a mixed affair. It is full of acute detail, heightens the play's Hamletesque references and has a very Russian sense of atmosphere. Gulls cry, the wind sighs in the trees, waves lap against the lake shore. There is also a heartstopping moment when the characters sit and listen to the sound of distant music and laughter. It not only evokes past happiness but achingly counterpoints the lovelorn sadness that taints Chekhov's people.
If there is a reservation in my voice, it has to do with the need for the RSC to revive The Seagull so soon after Terry Hands's superlative production in The Swan. Without wishing to be ageist, Noble's cast is also, in several crucial cases, much older than Chekhov states -something that may not matter in Shakespeare but that is important in realistic drama. The novelist, Trigorin, is meant to be under 40. Nigel Terry, however, presents us with a grizzled figure who makes up for in energy what he lacks in youth. Dorn, the debonair doctor, is only 55. As played by Richard Johnson he becomes an older figure full of grave melancholy.
In the case of Penelope Wilton's superb Arkadina, however, age is simply irrelevant. Wilton presents us with an instantly recognisable figure — the dedicated, self-centred actress determined to keep professional or sexual rivals at bay. When she hisses at her son that his symbolist play is "decadent" it is because she senses a threat to her own conventional style of theatre. And when she tells Nina "I'm sure you must have talent" it is with the casual disdain of someone who spies a potential erotic challenge.
Wilton does not judge Arkadina. She shows how talent is always accompanied by insecurity. Justine Waddell's Nina also presents a genuine threat. She has beauty, spirit and the single-minded intensity of the genuinely ambitious. She also makes sense of that treacherous last act where Nina returns emotionally devastated but determined to endure. There is much in Noble's production, as well as Peter Gill's new version, to admire. But it needs time to mature before it sets out on a UK tour — and fireproof curtains.
Until February 24. Box office: 01789 403403.
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