The Seagull, Southwark Playhouse, London
Thursday 15 November 2012
Reinventing Chekhov has been all the rage this year – from the existential slapstick approach to Uncle Vanya taken by Moscow's visiting Vakhtangov company to Benedict Andrews's radical makeover of Three Sisters at the Young Vic.
Now The Seagull has been Anglicised and pulled into the 21st century by award-laden wunderkind Anya Reiss in this spare and cleverly cast thrust-stage production by Russell Bolam at Southwark.
The country estate of Sorin, the elderly retired civil servant, has been relocated “on the Isle of Man or wherever you will” – an isolated spot, worlds away from the metropolis, where Emily Dobbs's punkish, brilliantly disaffected Masha dances in her biker boots to an iPod and where Ben Moor's absurd, touching teacher Medvedenko bores on about the cost of his mobile phone contract.
Compellingly intense and petulantly immature in Joseph Drake's powerful, understated performance, would-be writer Konstantin taps at a laptop to produce the sound effects for his mocked lakeside mono-drama and – in a neatly devastating touch at the end – the extent of his suicidal despair is registered when he burns his boats by pointedly pouring a jug of water over the keyboard.
Youthful idealism corroding into disillusion; frustrated yearning for the bright lights and for the life unlived – these are universal experiences, as the adaptation is intended to stress. Yet while the update throws certain features of the original into sharp relief, there are important areas that make me wish that Reiss had gone further and used The Seagull as the template for a full-blooded re-write.
In a heady daze of gushy fan-girl adoration, Lily James's luminously ardent and fragile Nina is a perfect fit for our celebrity-obsessed culture in seeming to worship Trigorin (wooden Joseph Howell) more for his fame than for his writing. Actressy sunglasses perched atop her luxuriant mane, Sasha Waddell's flouncy neglectful diva accuses her son Konstantin of being “a deluded pretentious little scrounger” while he sees her as the embodiment of bland “museum theatre”.
Reiss , however, misses the chance to heighten our sense of the remarkable ways in which The Seagull dramatises Oedipal and generational tensions through a clash of culture because she fails properly to rethink Konstantin's experimental goals in contemporary terms.
A qualified success, then, as is the company. If Matthew Kelly is too straightforwardly avuncular as the kindly yet evasive Dr Dorn, Malcolm Tierney does a beautifully delicate job in bringing out Sorin's twinkling wryness and frailty.
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