The Seagull, King's Theatre, Edinburgh

A bird stripped to its bare bones
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The Independent Culture

When Peter Stein agreed to direct The Seagull for the Edinburgh Festival, he admitted that it was his least favourite Chekhov play. It was the comic elements that concerned him, being a tragedy man himself. But with Fiona Shaw as Arkadina - a delightfully over-the-top mix of Jean Brodie and Absolutely Fabulous's Edina - the comedy (like the sexual rivalry smouldering beneath the surface) is in a safe pair of hands.

Eccentricities apart, the German director has given his first English-speaking production something unique in its poetry and passion. Chekhov's exploration of motive and character is pointed up by Stein's emphasis on the moral purpose behind the playwright's imitation of reality. Through Stein's peerless technique, Chekhov's daringly low-key climax, in which Konstantin's suicide is whisperingly revealed, fairly blazes.

Like Chekhov's own, Stein's construction is so subtle as to be invisible. Few directors convey this playwright's essential dramatic functions so economically: portraying personalities, moving the action on, unveiling themes and, most importantly, conveying to the audience the mood of the characters and the hopeless fragility of their situations.

Stein, who, like Konstantin, thinks in images and creates impressions, does, unlike Konstantin, have a very definite purpose. The tedium that colours the contours of the play is charged here with an electric energy, despite long pauses and a decidedly unhurried approach. "The air is hot and still, nobody does anything but sit and philosophise about life," declares Arkadina, and in the sultry atmosphere of the King's Theatre the words have an amusing resonance.

Apart from the improvised stage knocked noisily up for Konstantin's little play, there's a marked absence of any designer's baggage. Indeed, Ferdinand Wögerbauer's minimalist sets bare all before us, down to the painted backstage walls, which gives the production a curiously makeshift feel - an unremarkable setting for extraordinary events. The visual effects are strikingly beautiful, thanks to a cinematic screen on to which are projected the shimmering lake, luminous sky, a brief, fast-moving sequence of life around Sorin's estate and, most stunning of all, the storm of the fourth act, where Konstantin's summer theatre is seen ripped and bedraggled, its flapping canvas looking bizarrely like a spread-eagled seagull.

To a haunting soundtrack of birdsong and fragments of music, this superb cast, an ensemble of the type more associated with the mainland Europe that is in the director's blood, brings Stein's own translation (based, oddly, on Constance Garnett's 1923 version) to burnished life.

Jodhi May's ardent Nina develops with a slow-burning intensity, painfully so in her encounters with Iain Glen's understated Trigorin. His lecture to her on the ordinariness of literary stardom becomes a velvety act of seduction, while his gentle stroking of the seagull that Konstantin has killed identifies him with brilliant clarity as the man who, with "nothing better to do", later destroys the girl.

Having the actors spend so much time with their backs to the audience, however, makes catching all the words a challenge, and even an irritation in the case of Paul Jesson, who could usefully play Sorin as less of a quavery-voiced old man. Michael Pennington becomes a remarkably pivotal figure in his assured characterisation of Doctor Dorn, diverting attention from the events erupting under the smooth veneer of life. Cillian Murphy is an earnestly vulnerable Konstantin and Charlotte Emmerson a sympathetic Masha, smitten by love for Konstantin. But Fiona Shaw's thoughtless, manipulative, and theatrical Arkadina is the most attention-grabbing, enjoyable performance in the show.

To August 23 (0131-473 2000)

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