Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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RSC catches fright at flames in smouldering Chekhov

Maev Kennedy, Arts and Heritage Correspondent, The Guardian, Thursday February 3, 2000

The show went on at the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon last night, but without the naked flames which introduced a spectacular curtain line to Tuesday's press night performance of Chekhov's bitter-sweet masterpiece, The Seagull.

"Fire!" said Richard Johnson, playing the worldly, decadent Dorn. "Real fire!" he added, in the face of the obvious bafflement of his fellow actors.

By the time the audience realised that this was not a new element in Peter Gill's translation, a stage hand had rushed on and was quenching a blazing linen curtain. The performance was suspended for 10 minutes while the mess was swept up. The cast then resumed their places to a huge round of applause on a stage which had escaped even being scorched.

But yesterday morning the decision was taken to ban both the naked candles and cigarettes on stage. The use of artificial candles and cigarettes was considered, but ruled out in the intimate space of the Swan Theatre. "Everyone felt it would just look too hideous," company spokesman Ian Rowley said.

The candles, in the set designed by Vicky Mortimer for Adrian Noble's new production, were used to light the stage within a stage on which the younger generation in the play performs an achingly pretentious amateur theatrical. The cigarettes were liberally smoked by their urbane and mocking elders, come down from Moscow to show off in their country estate with ultimately tragic consequences.

It appears that a character leaving the stage early in the first act brushed against the linen sheeting draping the amateurs' stage, so that it was left hanging directly above a candle. The sheet smouldered unobserved before bursting into flames 10 minutes later.

Mr Rowley, who was in the audience, said: "By the time the audience realised something was actually amiss, the stage crew, who were brilliant, had already got the fire out."

Last night's performance went ahead without a flicker of alarm. Fire is taken seriously at Stratford, where the original Victorian theatre burned to the ground in 1926. Yesterday an inquiry began involving the RSC, the Warwickshire fire service and Stratford district council.

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