The premiere of The Seagull at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in 1896 was a disaster; even Chekhov left at the interval. "They had only a few days of rehearsals, someone was drunk and they were all wrongly cast - it was a nightmare," says Katie Mitchell who, 110 years on, is directing the play in a new version by Martin Crimp. "I'm not so interested in newness, I'm more interested in accuracy", says Mitchell.
Crimp has duly stripped back the script to reveal the essence of each character's desires and frustrations, from the fading actress, Arkadina (Juliet Stephenson) to her tortured playwright son, Konstantin (Ben Whishaw), and his beloved Nina, an aspiring actress (Hattie Morahan).
"There's a lot of exposition embedded in the text, there are soliloquies and asides - we have quite ruthlessly removed these," explains Crimp. "In the process of cleaning a painting, some people will say, 'Oh yes, those are all the fresh colours' and others will say, 'Oh no, we liked it hiding under all the brown varnish'. Here, there is no brown varnish." It is a bold move from the playwright, who freely acknowledges the Russian dramatist's influence on his own work. "I think that everyone after Chekhov is paying some kind of debt to him because he changed the rules."
The Seagull is Mitchell's second visit to one of Chekhov's atmospheric, melancholy country estates - in 2003 she directed Three Sisters, also at the National. "I learnt a lot from Three Sisters - [it was] way too long. I realised that it could be done more economically without the play being neglected, that I couldn't ask the actors to suffer so much, dealing with opaque 19th-century references."
Mitchell will be hoping for a kinder reaction than the catcalls that greeted the play in 1896; the trick is "to bring the people acting it closer to the people watching it, to put up no unnecessary barriers."
Crimp agrees, "You're trying to stop people looking through frosted glass. You want them to look through clear glass."
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