Chekhov named this play The Seagull, as Ibsen did The Wild Duck, without caring overmuch about exactly what type of gull it was. It has been a problem ever since: I've seen it staged as if it were a breed of tragic albatross with the odd funny squawk. The author himself thought it was a comedy - as he said, "a comedy with... lots of talk about literature, little action and a ton of love". It's good to hear the play getting as many laughs as it does in this classy, enjoyable revival, which reveals an immediacy and freshness under the layers of paint that have been slopped over this robust theatrical fowl.
It's proof that a translation can make all the difference. Tom Stoppard's crisp, lively version, first seen in 1997, is wonderfully alive,and it convinced me that I was getting the original thing but without any sense of plonking literalism. It is also, as you would expect from Stoppard, totally alert to the comedy, the central joke being that everyone in the play is hopelessly besotted with the wrong person - a chain of mismatches which becomes increasingly ridiculous and increasingly touching.
Robert Bowman's production may have standard issue birch trees on stage but it manages to successfully burn off all that autumnal wistfulness that usually passes for "Chekhovian". He's also assembled a fine cast who on the whole make you feel the play could have been written yesterday even if its characters are old acquaintances.
Buried deep in the countryside, the point about these people is that no one really listens to anyone else, at least not properly. The queen of egotistical self-absorption is the middle-aged actress Arkadina (played with gusto by Annabelle Apsion), a cloying ham who drives her arty and unstable son Konstantin (Richard Henders), himself a no-hope writer, round the bend.
The trump card, though, is Scott Handy as Trigorin, the successful writer. Always a compelling actor, Handy gives Trigorin a delightfully fazed quality as he drifts about stage endlessly jotting things down in his notebook, reducing everything he sees or hears to fodder for his next story.
Of the rest of the cast, Simon Shepherd is a dead-smooth Dorn, the doctor with his "pick-and-choose sort of life" who couldn't give a stuff about anything; and there's a terrific performance from Siwan Morris as a lank-haired, very Welsh Masha whose broken heart has made her cruel.
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