A perfect balance
Patrick Carnegy reviews The Seagull (Swan Theatre, Stratford), The Spectator, 12 February, 2000
Followers of theatrical events will be aware that the first night of the RSC's new Seagull was interrupted by an incendiary incident. The linen curtains of the young playwright Konstantin's improvised garden theatre - which had just been peremptorily swept shut by Konstantin in response to the stage-audience's irreverent reception of his futuristic play — caught light from the candles on the trestle-stage. I had always understood that `Mr Sands!' was the proper anti-panic euphemism for these occasions, but it was cries of `Fire! Fire!' that brought the performance to a halt. Far from inciting a stampede for the exits, actors and audience remained transfixed while the stagehands ripped the curtains down and wielded two red extinguishers.
Was this not exquisitely Chekhovian behaviour? We were all paralysed, imagining that someone would do something to avert catastrophe. Maybe this was a new production twist and we must sit patiently until its purpose had been revealed. It was not improbable that Konstantin should put a match to his `theatre of the future' that had incited only ridicule. The problem for all The Seagull's characters is that they're in a fix that seems to stretch out to eternity. The unpublished Konstantin and the overpublished Trigorin are equally fearful that their work may be rubbish. Sorin, the estate owner, feels he's achieved nothing. Everyone is either shackled to a faithless partner or in love with someone they can never have.
Chekhov's great play is about souls as dead as the seagull that is shot by Konstantin and flung at the feet of Nina, his exquisitely pretty muse, as a token of her failure to return his love. Lucky seagull, for Chekhov's people are neither dead nor properly alive. Adrian Noble's production has the measure of their purgatory — every characterisation seems just right, the pathos in balance with the humour, for this is both a very funny and a very tragic piece.
It is beautifully acted by a cast well in tune with what Tynan memorably described as the `strange dynamic apathy that is Chekhov's greatest demand on his actors'. Richard Pasco's Sorin catches this to perfection in his complaints that his doctor (Richard Johnson) won't give him any medicine, his manager (Barry Stanton) any horses to take him away.
Noble follows Stanislavski rather than Chekhov in his attention to naturalistic detail and soundscape — dogs bark, crickets tick and happy singing is heard from over the lake. There's anachronism in Doctor Dorn's putting on the odd opera disc to ease the mood, but this is pardonable if Johnson wasn't happy with Chekhov's idea that he should hum snatches of old songs. I also have no quarrel with Niam Lineham playing the vodka-loving, snuff-snorting Masha as an uninhibited misfit, snapping away at people who are impervious to all concerns but their own.
Chekhov wanted Trigorin, the literary celebrity on whom too many women dote, to be not too well-dressed or even attractive. Nigel Terry plays him as a greywhiskered tom who can't quite believe that so much cream keeps coming his way. He has an easy roguish charm, able to begin a new affair with Justine Waddell's smitten Nina under the watchful eye of Madame Arkadina (Penelope Wilton). He's also ruthless in feeding on one and all as fodder for stories as yet unwritten. After Arkadina has flung herself to her knees before him, Trigorin calms her with about as insincere an embrace as you could imagine, fumbling for his notebook even before their lips have parted. Penelope Wilton's regal bearing and elegant costuming only underline the chilling meanness of Arkadina's spirit. Yet Wilton also manages to convey her vulnerability, the fact that the bad behaviour is rooted in insecurity. The very last thing you see is her raising a glass to her lips, smiling ingratiatingly at Trigorin while Dorn quietly breaks the news to him that Konstantin has shot himself.
You only wonder why he took such an age. John Light's tousled dream-boy has long since been reduced to a twitchy wreck by his mother's condescension. Hardest of all for him is Nina's defection in favour of Trigorin. Yet the pain of this seems to make a real writer of him, or at least a successful one. But his mother has still not found the time to read a single line he's written and when Nina, now spurned by Trigorin, arrives like the angel of his salvation - but has actually only come in pursuit of the older man — it is high time to make an end. The terrible irony is, as Justine Waddell's moving recapitulation of Nina's monologue in the strange play from Act I makes plain, that suffering has made her a real actress, able at last to understand its meaning.
This is Chekhov dancing at the cliff edge of modernity, dissolving the plangent music of his disenchantment into a vision of ecological armageddon in which all living things have become extinct and the disembodied world-soul is embattled with the devil. In Act I the innocent Nina has put this across as a parody of Maeterlinck's cosmic symbolism. At the end, seared by experience, she returns to show us that the words are also a requiem for a fallen world.
At Stratford until 25 February, then on national tour until 8 April. The play is given in a new translation by Peter Gill (Oberon Books, £5.99)
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