Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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The nature of things

Love, power, morality — the RSC's new production of The Seagull tackles the big questions. By JOHN PETER, The Sunday Times, 6 February 2000

Touching: John Light and Justine Waddell in the Seagull.  Photo: Donald CooperThroughout Adrian Noble's haunting and generous-hearted production of The Seagull (RSC, The Swan), you can hear, on and off, the sound of wind over the waters. This is not only a reminder that you are in the countryside. We tend to think of Chekhov's plays as being pictures of interiors: even in the few scenes that take place outdoors, his characters bear the yoke of social and family obligations that express the uneasy authority of large but claustrophobic houses. More than most other productions I have seen, this one reminds you that Chekhov's crumbling, genteel interiors are miniature versions of a hard, crumbling world. And more than in any other production, you are conscious here of the presence of the great lake nearby, the lake in whose waters people swim, refresh themselves or drown. The lake and the wind play the same symbolic function in The Seagull as the dying forests in Uncle Vanya or the trees in The Cherry Orchard: they remind you that nature is a repository of values, and that you should listen to her voice.

This is one of the themes of the clumsy, pretentious and pathetically sincere symbolist play that poor Konstantin puts on — in, of course, his uncle's garden. In this cosy outdoor setting, Konstantin is writing about a bleak, deserted world, nature denatured, which reflects the landscape of his soul.

John Light gives one of the most touchingly and harrowingly Chekhovian performances in the role. I have never seen a Konstantin before who wanted so desperately, so awkwardly, so sadly to be loved; nor an actor who could play this with such an unostentatious humility and without the slightest hint of hysteria or self-pity. And it is not only a need to be loved: Konstantin wants to be accepted. He wants his mother to speak, not to people at large, which she prefers, but to him and him alone. A sense of superfluity, the dread and fate of so many intelligent Russians, haunts him, and acceptance by his mother as an artist and a person is his only refuge.

The point about her is that she is incapable of understanding any of this. Penelope Wilton plays her as a glittering, cruel bird; handsome, controlled, sexually profoundly attractive, but scary. Her desire for Trigorin is ruthless, irresistible, but cold. When she first enters, she glides past the impassive Dr Dorn flirtatiously and dangerously, like a killer swan. Wilton is not portraying a wicked woman, only an obtuse one: somebody who would like to be the giving kind, but without actually parting with anything. She firmly believes that she is a good mother, and she thinks she knows what good mothers do; and whenever she does anything, this knowledge makes her feel good and generous, though without quite knowing why. When she conquers Trigorin, her victory is sealed, not with an embrace, but with a handshake: this relationship is about power, and Wilton knows that this is what Arkadina is best at.

The weak point of the production is, to my great surprise, Nigel Terry's Trigorin, and I do not know whose fault this is. Trigorin is 38; Terry plays him as a big, lean, grizzled hunter, 50 if he is a day, made gaunt and slightly crabby by middle age. What is the point of this? Terry is in his fifties, but he is perfectly capable of playing 38. If you let Trigorin look older than Arkadina, which he does here, you alter the delicate psychological balance between them, between him and Konstantin, and even more between him and Nina.

Nina herself gets a performance from Justine Waddell that is beautiful, gentle, volatile and angry at the same time. Her face reminds you of one of Degas's delicate, self-absorbed dancers, but her Nina also has their steely will and precision. She captures the very heart of this perilous role: the knowledge that you must absorb pain, understand failure and go on living in their shadow.

The supporting performances (the term is particularly unsuitable to Chekhov's characters) are first-rate. Richard Pasco's Sorin is not so much an eternal whinger, which is how he is often played, as a majestic old growler, a bit of a failure, but not nearly as stupid as he sometimes sounds, and quite sensitive when his sister lets him speak. Pasco's bearlike performance speaks volumes of him as a pillar of the heavy-handed Russian judiciary. I liked Niamh Linehan's Masha, with her tense, angry, disappointed little mouth and a will of iron, and Mark Hadfield's Medvedenko, Masha's husband, whose only faults are being gauche, self-important and to have been born to play second fiddle to a more strong-willed failure.

At the heart of the play stands Dr Dorn, the legendary ladies' man, who is brought to brooding, thoughtful life by Richard Johnson, in one of the most subtle and magisterial performances of his career. This is acting in which the actor's entire body takes part, with an almost imperceptible subtlety: hands, eyebrows, a swivel of the eyes or a turn of the head have the weight of sentences and feelings. The point about Dorn is that he understands love: how to give it and how to take it, when to value it and when not to. Like a searchlight, he puts everybody else on stage in perspective; and Johnson understands what Dorn has learnt, that it is as moral to understand people as to love them.

I do not normally like it when directors introduce music into Chekhov's plays when he did not indicate it; but here, when Dorn withdraws to a corner and listens, with the unaffected pleasure of the old, to his crackling old opera records, you experience a true Chekhovian moment. Art can be a consolation, which is a moral value. In the wrong hands, it can be merely a pastime, or it can be destructive. Chekhov (and Dorn, and Johnson), like true artists, leaves the matter open.


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