Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Seagull

Southwark Playhouse, 19 November 2012

Promo video, focussing on the seagull of the title.

A very strong production still cannot make me care about Chekhov's characters.

The ususal description of what Chekhov is doing in his dramas, exploring love, jealousy, russian society and so on, seems to me entirely useless. It's as if critics thought either earnest Konstantin or charming Trigorin in this drama were his artistic surrogates, when I feel it is self-evident they are not.

Art need only describe problems, not solve them, says Chekhov in the epigraph of Anya Reiss' lightly updated translation. The power of Chekhov lies specifically in the way he describes our problems, specifically how we are to live, given that our desires are not harmonious with those of other people, or with the way the world works.

What strikes me as unique in Chekhov is his adaptation of the realistic novel to the stage. He forces us to empathise with each carefully articulated character, and finds ways to make ensembles emphasise their differences. For example, so long as the actors are fully in character, the scene with everyone watching Konstantin's bizarre play can become a microcosm of society, with everyone responding differently and illuminatingly.

This scene, and others, transcend the limitations of a realist novel and are utterly theatrical. Only the theatre offers us the possibility of choosing whom we watch, whereas a novelist (for example) is required to focus on one person at a time.

I imagine this is deceptively difficult to direct, for it requires both extracting magnificent performances and also ensuring that the arrangement of each scene is completely plausible. No one viewpoint or character should be highlighted above others; somehow Russell Bolam manages this feat unobtrusively.

The performances, while fine, would not draw tears from a stone. This is more the fault of Chekhov's composition; a scene involving a gun may heighten tension, but it also veers into melodrama. To maintain realism here both Konstantin and Nina must be prone to these hysterics, and working backwards, so must other characters, most obviously Arkadina.

At least Sasha Waddell's Arkadina does not dominate proceedings, however much the character might wish to. And Anthony Howell is a more appealing Trigorin than I've seen before. Such careful balancing brings out the full futility of the conclusion.

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