Affairs of the heart have never been so complicated
by Maeve Walsh, The Independent on Sunday, 6 February 2000
For fleeting moment, The Seagull felt like a pantomime. As Chekhov's characters were grouping downstage to adjourn for supper, one of the nets draping the scenery blew into a candle and went up in flames. "Behind you!" would have been appropriate had the potential consequences not been so serious. Instead, after cries of "Fire!" and — helpfully - "Real fire!", a member of the production crew leapt on stage with an extinguisher and, after a five-minute mop-up, Richard Pasco's Sorin resumed: "Let us go in, ladies and gentlemen. It's getting cold." And he wasn't able to resist whirling his walking stick in ironic triumph at the audience's guffaws.
It's to the credit of the unflappable cast and Adrian Noble's measured production that Chekhovian coolness descended again, broken only by some heated exchanges and a little eyebrow-singeing passion. The cumulative chilliness emerged from beautifully judged moments of loss and yearning, the sound of folk songs drifting across the lake, Paule Constable's atmospheric lighting, and silences as heavy and burdensome as the dead.
Konstantin (John Light), son of the actress Arkadina (Penelope Wilton), is a moody young tyro who decries both the conformism of his mother's art and the transgressions of her lifestyle. Her affair with the famous writer Trigorin is all over the newspapers. Trigorin is soon all over Konstantin's amour, the ingenue Nina (a tremulous Justine Waddell). Reasons to be cheerful? Konstantin has none. So he grits his teeth and tries to shoot himself. Meanwhile, Masha (a highly strung Niamh Linehan) is in love with Konstantin. She dresses in black, snorts snuff and downs vodka.
Young people, eh? They just don't put things in perspective. When, in the penultimate scene, the ruined Nina returns to a touching reunion with Konstantin, the older people are carousing in the next room. Arkadina has been cheated on and Sorin's health is deteriorating but, unlike Konstantin, they retire to play board games rather than Russian roulette.
Wilton's Arkadina embodies this mature resilient spirit. She struts her well-kept body past the grungey Masha and welcomes her young competitor, Nina, with a frosty "I'm sure you must have talent". Her attempts at politeness are delivered with wonderful insincerity. But when, in her tempestuous Oedipal relationship with Konstantin, she tells him that he and his theatrical endeavours are "nothing", it's pretty much the truth. And the force of her unmaternal malice reverberates throughout the rest of the play. Wilton's a mother from hell, and she is superb.
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