First Night: The Seagull, Royal Court Theatre, London

Nimble performance from a leading lady in every sense
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The Independent Culture

After eight years as its artistic director, Ian Rickson signs off at the Royal Court with this fine, valedictory production of The Seagull. In some respects, it's a strange choice of play for a swansong. During his regime, he abandoned the policy of counter-pointing new work with classic revivals.

Indeed, this is the first classic costume drama that Rickson has ever directed. Seen in another light, though, it makes for a rather apt finale. Konstantin, Chekhov's aspiring, young writer, is fired, at the start, by a Royal Court-like mission. He wants to usher in the Theatre of the Future, and he finds, as more than a few dramatists have done in Sloane Square, that the public are by no means ready for it - just as the audience was unprepared for the innovations in The Seagull itself, when it was premiered in St Petersburg. So the evening has various, intriguing layers of self-reference.

In a role that's a far cry from the ghastly Gareth in The Office, Mackenzie Crook gives a touchingly truthful performance as Konstantin - his awkward, lanky body and injured eyes conveying the love-starved neediness of a youth who is mortified to lose both his neglectful mother and his starry-eyed girlfriend to an older, successful writer Trigorin. As the latter, Chiwetel Ejiofor seems far too straightforward and honourable - surely a writer who is as self-conscious as he is about the deadliness of turning the whole of life into "copy" would be more calculatingly aware of his effect on Carey Mulligan's superlative Nina.

As the leading lady in more senses than one, Kristin Scott Thomas is a magnificent, haughty, and impatient Arkadina: she's a mistress of the brilliantly timed put-down who gives Nina the fatal advice to become an actress out of the sheer unthinking negligence of seasoned self-absorption. It's a wonderfully nimble and funny performance, darkening into black farce as she demonstrates the ignominious desperateness of her need for Trigorin.

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