Someone is hammering. Konstantin's temporary stage is still under construction. This is how Chekhov's The Seagull begins, directed for the Edinburgh International Festival by Peter Stein in a sharply tragicomic mode. The small rough-hewn dais, shrouded in hessian by a moonlit lake, looks forlorn and haunted in the half-dark.
Konstantin (Cillian Murphy), the fledgling dramatist, soon appears in a flap, urging two peasants-turned-stage hands to get ready for the dramatic monologue that's about to be performed by his sweetheart, Nina (Jodhi May), in front of his adored mother, Fiona Shaw's Arkadina.
In this absorbing production, Stein has drawn many fine performances from his British/ Irish cast, following in what's now a long tradition of Stanislavskian naturalism. Yet Germany's veteran experimentalist is being avant-garde too, reflecting Konstantin's own obsessive talk about new artistic forms. The larger stage (that of the King's Theatre itself) is almost bare: a vast space with its rough brick walls and water pipes exposed. This explores layers of theatricality and reality which is apt enough since Arkadina is a histrionic diva just paying a flying visit to her country estate.
The costumes are certainly vintage Chekhov. Shaw swans around in a long, eye-catching, white-lace gown while her lover, the celebrity novelist Trigorin (Iain Glen), prowls about in a linen suit. By contrast, the lake is a huge hi-tech projection screen where photorealism flows into expressionism as the glimmering lake transmogrifies (via computer graphics) into a subsequent day's blue sky. That, in turn, dissolves into abstract canvasses of emotionally-charged colour; a jealous jade green, a violent red. On the one hand, it's symbolic.
Konstantin's ailing uncle Sorin sits with the heavens as his backdrop, even as Dr Dorn tells him to set his sights on eternity. On the other hand, that incandescent blue makes the scene here and now, not fading into sepia like so many Chekhov revivals. In a programme note, Stein says he's avoided this play until now because, compared to Chekhov's later masterpieces, The Seagull includes lots of old formal dramaturgy, soliloquies etc. But actually it seems more radically Brechtian here when Michael Pennington's silver-haired Dorn breaks the fourth wall to address us directly.
Shaw's Arkadina is a crucially ambiguous mix of artifice and genuine passion. She is very funny, satirically playing a luvvie who hogs all the limelight during Konstantin's playlet - blowing him kisses then copying Nina's stylised stage gestures as if she's pretending to be entranced. After Konstantin's first suicide attempt, she has him sit on her lap as she replaces the bandage on his forehead. And she bestows a flurry of anxious kisses on him as if he's still her darling little boy - but even then with preoccupied haste.
The final scene is unforgettably distressing, where a distant gunshot makes Arkadina suddenly see black and Shaw claws at the air in front of her eyes in a fearful silence. Just occasionally Stein's production seems peculiarly clumsy. Shaw's tendency to screech is irksome though presumably meant to be bird-like. The metaphorical significance of the gull that Konstantin shoots is also emphasised needlessly, with a whopping close-up of one on screen and a special spotlight for the stuffed version. The computer graphics can be obtrusive whilst Murphy's dull Konstantin fails to stand out at all. However, May is a superb Nina: naively star-struck, passionately intense, then desperately damaged by the fly-by-night Trigorin. Glen also exudes a magnetic charge, his ardour slowly burning through his cool slouch. Pennington's performance is exceptionally fine-tuned as well, with the Doctor's caring sagacity giving way to callous shrugging at the incurability of the human condition.
What's striking about Katie Mitchell's staging of Three Sisters are the parallels that emerge with The Seagull. Chekhov's common themes are, of course, bored yearning for the metropolis and youthful hopes being decimated. But beyond that Mitchell creates a surprising playlet-within-the-play, just before the frustrated siblings' musical evening is cancelled by Natasha, their encroaching sister-in-law. As Masha (Eve Best) lays out song-sheets for the imminent guests, her extramarital admirer Colonel Vershinin (Ben Daniels) philosophises with Lieutenant Tuzenbach (Paul Hilton). Mitchell has them humorously debating the band's temporary stage created with low-slung curtains. Then Irina (Anna Maxwell Martin), like a little girl again, launches into a mock-ballet playing the dying swan. This foreshadows the last act where, rather than a stoical ending, Irina goes mad with bereaved grief, picks up her suitcases, stumbles outdoors and collapses in the pouring rain.
Best is even more heartbreaking, soaked and bedraggled in her black dress, falling to the ground as if her wings are broken when Vershinin walks away. Daniels is equally outstanding, tenderly ardent with a hint of the poseur. However, the older characters are low on warmth and, generally, Mitchell's ensemble don't seem quite natural, as if they need to rehearse or just relax a little more. Nicholas Wright's translation is rather stiff and not always sensitive to class differences. There are powerful moments of heightened nightmarishness, yet the anti-naturalistic interludes seem very laboured - when everyone freezes while loud clocks tick. What Chekhov surely discovered was that you don't need to grossly magnify daily life to reveal its significance (or insignificance) in the great scheme of things.
Zigzagging back to Edinburgh and the Fringe Festival, a half-gutted townhouse seems to be possessed by ghosts. In Grid Iron's thrilling site-specific show, Those Eyes, That Mouth, you're never quite sure if you and your fellow-spectators are, in fact, the spectres in this domestic tragedy. You creep up the spiral stairs and crowd into small curtained rooms, apparently unseen by the people who occupy the place. But Cait Davis is distinctly spooky as you hear her running frantically across the floor above and see her flick round the corner of the banisters to answer the repeatedly ringing phone. You gather she's a modern artist obsessively reworking Vermeer's alluring Portrait Of A Girl With A Pearl Earring. But she seems to exist in different times, haunted by a thuggish yet passionately crooning ex-lover (David Paul Jones). One or two scenes drag and the script is often derivative but there are some sharp twists and imaginative surprises to knock you sideways here.
After this, Topdog/ Underdog seems predictable in the way it builds up to a murder. Suzan-Lori Parks' Obie-winning two-hander - imported from New York's Public Theater - is set in a grungy bedsit shared by black brothers on Skid Row. Lincoln works in a mall, painting his face white and dressing up as President Lincoln - a joke target for customer's pot shots. Meanwhile Booth, a fantasist with a real gun, craves to be a top cardsharp, his bro's former trade.
It's dog-eat-dog in the end. Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright are high-energy performers with great comic timing, and Parks has an ear for patter. But these guys do bang on.
'The Seagull': King's Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 473 2000), to Sat; 'Three Sisters': NT Lyttelton, London SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 4 Oct; 'Those Eyes, That Mouth': 32 Abercromby Place, Edinburgh (0131 558 1879), to 25 Aug; 'Topdog/ Underdog': Royal Court Downstairs, London SW1 (020 7565 5000), to 30 AugReuse content