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THEATRE / Every picture tells a story: Paul Taylor on The Seagull, directed by John Caird, at the National

It's in the plays of Brecht, not Chekhov, that you expect to encounter alienation effects. A jolting, unscheduled interruption managed to break the spell, however, at the first night of John Caird's Olivier revival of The Seagull, when proceedings were brought to a halt by a large frame which got jammed in mid-flight from the stage. This was rotten luck, even if you felt, unworthily, that here was a classic case of a fine production paying the price for visual over-elaboration.

At the start, the setting is almost empty. The cast then assemble and start to mill about as though conscious of participating in a work of art. Beginning with the rectangular outline of the makeshift stage on which Konstantin's experimental drama is to be performed, John Gunter's design adds, act by act, fresh layers of proscenium-like frame to this stage picture, each smaller and more cluttered with objects. By the final scene, you seem to be looking at a palimpsest of all that has gone before, and when, at the back, you see the original stage collapse as Konstantin (an appealing Alan Cox) walks forward into the present, the effect is undeniably moving.

Whether this is enough to justify the fussiness of the look is debatable (it is, after all, in The Cherry Orchard that Chekhov's interest in framing devices comes to the fore). Also, the way this production concludes, with all the layers disappearing aloft and the stage gradually reverting to how it was at the start (a stuffed seagull now added to the spectacle), feels a somewhat precious winding-down, counter to the spirit of Chekhov's abrupt, unaffected climax and its definitive, muttered curtain-line, 'The thing is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.'

Looking like a bad- tempered pug in a turban, Judi Dench gives a toweringly comic performance as Arkadina, the spoilt, celebrated actress now on the wrong side of her prime. Dench makes no bones about this grande dame's determination or underlying desperation. In an effort to persuade her lover, Trigorin (Bill Nighy), to stay on the estate, this Arkadina tackles him to the floor and grapples with him there in an undignified sexual scrimmage, emitting little orgasmic cries. Once he's relented, though, she snaps out of this mood with equally indecent haste, coolly making it seem as though staying on the estate is her gracious concession to him.

Playing the fond mother is not a role that comes naturally to this woman, and Dench turns the scene where she re-bandages her son's head after his suicide attempt into a hilarious slapstick routine. Starting grudgingly, she gradually warms to the job and then becomes ludicrously absorbed in getting it just right, racing round the boy's head with lengths of bandage as though he were a maypole, or having to unravel it all so that she can reach the pair of scissors she'd recently been cutting grapes with. It's wonderfully funny, but sad, too, maternal love misdirected into crankily perfect first-aid.

Dench is surrounded by fine talent. Agitated by genuine self-disgust, Bill Nighy's excellent Trigorin is too preoccupied with the trials of being an author to notice the effect he is having on Helen McCrory's superbly passionate and (for once) unethereal Nina. This Trigorin, most affectingly, wakes up to discover that he's truly in love with the girl, which makes the aftermath all the more painfully tragic.

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(Photograph omitted)