The scene was set — then the set caught fire
Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph, reviews The Seagull at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 3 February 2000
THERE are still a few misguided souls who believe that Chekhov is an unutterably dreary writer, all boring talk and terminal Slavic gloom.
No one, however, could complain of a lack of exciting action at the first night of Adrian Noble's new production of The Seagull. He had built the mood beautifully in the first act, poignantly capturing the often unspoken tensions between the characters and creating a marvellously atmospheric sense of summer twilight, with birds' wings beating, crickets chirping and music drifting magically over the lake.
And then the set caught fire. The curtains on the makeshift stage on which Konstantin's terrible play had just been performered were ignited by candles and began to blaze. The actors, all facing the front, seemed oblivious, and it took a member of the audience to alert the cast and the stage management with a cry of "Fire, real fire!"
The flames were quickly and efficiently extinguished, but I suspect that Noble will be given a roasting by the fire authorities, and quite right too. One would hate to see the beautiful Swan auditorium, almost entirely constructed of wood, going the same way as Shakespeare's Globe back in 1613.
And one's heart went out to poor Richard Pasco, who had to recommence the show with the unfortunate line "Let's go in . . . it's getting cold", which was greeted with the kind of laughter a stand-up comic might envy.
It says a good deal for the professionalism of the cast and the strength of Noble's production that an authentic Chekhovian mood was quickly restored.
Noble is keenly alert to the mixture of humour and piercing sadness in the script, in an unexceptionable new translation by Peter Gill, and equally good at capturing the subtle rhythms of the play, with its animated social surface, sudden silences and sense of gathering desperation.
Nevertheless, I can't help feeling that The Seagull is in danger of becoming over-exposed. The National, the Old Vic, the West Yorkshire Playhouse and even the RSC itself have all mounted major productions in recent years, and Chekhov is best when he comes at you fresh. I concede, however, that this is the kind of irritating complaint that only drama critics make, and there will be many seeing The Seagull for the first time and marvelling at the play's emotional depth and effervescent spontaneity.
Chekhov's portrayal of the cruel inequality of love, with a daisy-chain of unrequited lovers, is beautifully judged. More remarkably still, The Seagull's apparent naturalism is breathtakingly combined with a debate about the artifice of art and the need for "new forms" of drama.
More than a century on, the skill, daring and subtlety of the play still seem miraculous.
Penelope Wilton, a great and undervalued actress, gives a merciless account of the ruthless selfishness of the actress Arkadina; her dealings with both her son and her lover, which can be presented as comic and even charming, here seem downright chilling in their manipulative, self-absorbed intensity.
John Light, an actor of whom I have high hopes, painfully captures the way that Konstantin's hurt grows like a cancer — the moment when his face crumples in the last act is the most moving of the production — while Justine Waddell beautifully captures the wired desperation of Nina.
Niamh Linehan brilliantly nails the mixture of pain and cruelty in Masha's nature, and there are strong contributions too from Nigel Terry (though he's a touch too old for Trigorin), Richard Johnson, Barry Stanton, Richard Pasco, Mark Hadfield and Gabrielle Lloyd.
It's good to know that this fine production will be touring, though one hesitates to suggest that it will set regional theatres ablaze.
Until Feb 24. Tickets: 01789 403403
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