Chekhov's 'Seagull' is set alight
by Alastair Macaulay, Financial Times, 3 February 2000
First the bad news: there was a small onstage fire in Act One of the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of The Seagull on press night at the Swan Theatre. But it was quickly extinguished and the play soon resumed. The production already had the audience on its side, and part of the reason is the Swan Theatre itself.
When a Chekhov production is great, every inconsequential detail seems luminous. Like Einstein, Chekhov seems to believe that there are no fixed points in space. Everything is relative to something else. He is the master of minor details — noises off, idle trivia on — and a production captures his genius when it shows us how people do (or don't) respond to these details, when it shows us the hybrid fabric of people's interior and exterior lives. The Swan is wonderful at enhancing such details. Dogs bark offstage; a night watchman knocks outside; a game of cards is played onstage. These things are near and all around us and we respond almost like the characters onstage.
The RSC's new Seagull is wonderful this way. How Konstantin (John Light) sits on the lap of his uncle Sorin (Richard Pasco), and helps him to comb his beard. How Sorin listens to Konstantin's distress, caresses his face tenderly, and then changes the subject. How Konstantin, wretched at his mother's rude irreverence for his play, runs off in anguish like a furiously unhappy little boy. How Dr Dorn (Richard Johnson) exclaims "Jupiter, you are angry"; how Mme Arkadina (Penelope Wilton) grandly rebukes him "I'm not Jupiter, I'm a woman", leaves a long pause as she crosses the stage and lights a cigarette, and then softly remarks "I'm not angry". How Konstantin, telling Nina how unfeeling she has become, actually draws her attention to the fact that his rival Trigorin (Nigel Terry) has arrived; how she (Justine Waddell) slowly turns to see Trigorin for herself and then — as if in modesty to hide her excitement from Konstantin — goes on slowly turning; and how, as she returns to her original position, she nonetheless shows that, for all her demure repose, she is transformed. How, when Nina tells Konstantin "I love him", his shoulders fall a centimetre.
Yes: what details! What heartbeats! And how many of these heartbeats belong to Konstantin. The young actor John Light's performance — despite a drop in tension in Act Three — is superb. He listens better than most actors speak; and, when he speaks or moves, there are moments that suddenly seize our hearts tight in a vice. Pasco is the finest Sorin I have ever seen; Johnson, Hadfield, and Barry Stanton (Shamrayev) and Gabrielle Lloyd (Polena) are all wonderful and the ensemble between them all could not be more eloquent. Justine Waddell star of the TV Wives and Daughters) is heartstoppingly lovely to observe - but she does not yet know how to take a theatre audience into her nervous system or how to bring off convincingly Nina's distracted ramblings in Act Four.
Nigel Terry, despite impeccable stage manners, is too old and too thespian to convince as Trigorin. No novelist he. Penelope Wilton's Arkadina has surprising flashes of depth amid her mercurial and self-contradictory behaviour, and her only fault is that the pacing of her lines is sometimes too deliberate. This is certainly Britain's best Seagull since the RSC's last one. Many of its moments are more telling than many complete productions of other, lesser, plays.
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