Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Seagull

Etcetera Theatre, London
8 December 2013

Fiona Shaw and Iain Glen in Peter Stein's acclaimed production, seen at Edinburgh in 2003.
From here.

Enterprising but disappointing student performance of a demanding piece.

Performing Chekhov requires high ambition, despite his great popularity. This production, from students at University College London, was not a success, but some of the reasons for its failure are interesting.

His mature full-length works are ensemble tragedies, a form I think Chekhov pioneered and which hasn't been successfully imitated, so far as I know, despite his huge influence on subsequent dramatists.

We're used to ensembles in comedies and historical dramas, and suchlike. But tragedy would seem to require a focal point or two. Chekhov contrives to show us that everyone is suffering, and that everyone's suffering is equally worth our attention.

Of course, if he actually did that it would be a miracle. Clearly some characters matter more to us than others. But while experiencing the drama, rather than reflecting on it at leisure, I feel everyone matters.

That is, in a successful production. And I think The Seagull simply cannot be successfully performed by a group of young people, however talented.

Part of the author's skill is his realistic mix of ages, so that the older characters, with their sense of wasted years, provide repellent role models for the younger characters, who are nonetheless doomed to the same outcome, unless something drastic happens such as a suicide attempt.

Student productions can prove very effective in masking the age difficulty, but not here, where it is so important. The actors playing older characters are too obviously playing a part (this is not their fault of course). As a result, everyone seems merely bratty.

This drama contains plenty of comedy, and that works well here, but overall it is profoundly tragic, so that the central themes of this work are lost in the production.

Other factors only made matters worse. The text is abbreviated into one act, which only heighten the sense of hysterical youth. The charming animated backdrop, which ought to be a strength, sometimes depicts  childlike interpretations of what we are witnessing. This is a terrible mistake, unnecessarily patronising and strengthening the feeling of watching immature spirits. This surely cannot have been the concept behind this production?

Etcetera Theatre does nobody a favour by not producing even a list of cast and crew. It would be unfair to comment on particular acting anyway, given the straitjacket imposed from the start by attempting this work.

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