In the remarkable new production of The Seagull in the Lyttelton, the director Katie Mitchell and the dramatist Martin Crimp, the author of this latest version, kick down the barriers that they believe separate a modern audience from Chekhov's transitional play.
To this end, they weed out the soliloquies and asides that are relics of 19th-century theatrical convention and dump the lumber of unnecessary exposition. By the same token, they introduce anachronistic items from the early 20th century. Arkadina and company tango to records on the much-used wind-up phonograph. Nina spookily gasps her lines into a microphone in Konstantin's play-within-the-play. There's electric lamplight in the crumbling, austere rooms in the house on Sorin's estate.
I have to admit that, watching good productions, I have never felt that the comedy and cruelty of The Seagull had been muffled by the things that bother Mitchell and Crimp. But their attempts to defamiliarise the piece, though sometimes strenuous, are more often salutary than questionable. The play mirrors the Oedipal conflicts of Hamlet, rewriting the battle as one waged between the would-be artistic avant-garde and the forces of conservatism. I liked the way this production rotated the first act by 180 degrees so that instead of watching Konstantin's symbolist drama from the same angle as the on-stage audience, we saw the panicky preparations and performance from his side of the improvised curtain of sheets.
Ben Whishaw's moving Konstantin flaps about like an over-earnest student director, tuning a grand piano in readiness for the self-conscious discords and string-scraping of the arty accompaniment. Crimp's dialogue gives the youth a pre-echo of Peter Brook, when he points out that his theatre is an "empty space" consisting of the lake and the horizon. When the sheets part, it's Arkadina and entourage who look to be on stage and on trial.
It's a shame that, having positioned the proceedings from Konstantin's perspective, Mitchell goes on to present his production as an absurd farrago, with Hattie Morahan's excellent Nina blundering on blindfold in her underwear with a light bulb on her back. This diminishes Konstantin and Dorn (Angus Wright), the doctor who is impressed by his abilities.
A decade ago, at the National, Judi Dench's Arkadina brilliantly conveyed the character's emotional desperation and her actressy vanity. With Juliet Stevenson, who has no gift for comedy, you just get neurotic agitation and righteous self-defence. She seems unprepared to emphasise the humiliating lengths to which the character must go to keep Mark Bazeley's calculating Trigorin. She never loses her dignity so, here, even the potentially funny and squirm-making scene falls flat in which Arkadina pulls out the sexual stops to seduce her lover to stay and then acts casual and reasonable as if nothing had happened after he relents.
It's a pity the shadowy lighting rarely lets you study the actors' faces for there are some fine performances. Rather than the play of his features, one goes away remembering the piteous way Whishaw, seen from behind, buckles and heaves up his stomach in desolation when abandoned by Morahan's wonderfully Ophelia-like Nina. Sandy McDade is superb as an alcoholic, tart, and, at times, anarchically direct Masha.
The production is inclined to drive good ideas too far. There's a blissfully amusing sequence in the relocated second act when, after Arkadina returns from a long hissy fit, the put-upon servants resume serving the meal as if by some sixth sense of timing. But the way they bustle into scenes of private conversation soon becomes tiresome. The same is true of the added symbolism, like the clouds of dust that drop from the ceiling, echoing an earlier black joke of Konstantin, when he goes off to commit suicide. No one could quarrel, though, with the imaginative integrity of Mitchell's fresh vision of the piece.
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