What happened to the dacha? Instead of the usual collection of armchairs, samovars and croquet sets, two platforms of pale wood sit on stilts over a pool, in Steven Pimlott's production, like a postmodern pier. Reflections of the ripples flicker on to bare walls, and the garden is but a strip of grass on the wooden floor. Even the moon seems imprisoned in a sort of aquarium.
Alison Chitty's startling set may sound contrived, but in fact it brilliantly makes the play's two main points about the characters: that their lives are built on a fragile foundation; and that the life is being choked out of them. Starved of money, affection, meaningful work, they do their daily rounds with no more of a future than that of the gull, circling the lake, far from the sea.
On this stripped-back stage, the well-known lines shine like new. The references to the theatre, natural enough when two of the main characters are an actress and a playwright, are striking in their obviously wider application. "Life without theatre is unthinkable," says the elderly Sorin (Desmond Barrit), to whom it means a substitute for the life that he has always been afraid to live. Barrit chirps and frets and snuffles, his unhappiness all the more touching for his down-playing it, as he does everything else. "I have never acted in a trashy play in my life!" shouts the tempestuous Arkadina. The line might be Chekhov's wink at his unsympathetic critics, but it also points up Arkadina's wilful blindness to the fact that her own life is a trashy play, or at least a messy one. Blending coquetry and mature seductiveness, Sheila Gish bounces up from her younger lover's lap to waltz, kissing and whispering, with her old love, Dr Dorn (an excellent Michael Feast, as light and dapper as he is hollow). Her back to the wall, she resorts to force of will, physically overpowering Philip Quast's Trigorin, and desperately babbling words of adoration, threat, and promise. It's hardly surprising that all this emotion leaves nothing for her son, Konstantin; one minute the two are in each other's arms, the next at each other's throats.
This bracing new version by Phyllis Nagy is occasionally slangy and coarse, but not disturbingly so - after all, these are bohemians. While I see the point of playing Trigorin as passive rather than predatory, Quast is too clumsy and sheepish for a literary and social success. The young couple are also unconvincing. Ed Stoppard's Konstantin, instead of a neurotic, might be a head of a student union, and Alexandra Moens's Nina is not so much innocent as precious and shallow.
"Avoid ephemeral subjects," Dr Dorn advises the young playwright. "Stick to the significant. These are the plays that will last." It is the play's most sublime joke. One hundred years ago, another doctor wrote a play about the love affairs of a selfish actress, a careless man, a weak youth, and a foolish girl, and it still breaks our hearts.
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