Theatre: Review: The still, small voice of calm

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The Independent Culture
IN SEPTEMBER, Sir Ian McKellen announced that he was abandoning the London stage - possibly for ever - to work at the West Yorkshire Playhouse for six months, disillusioned by the treadmill performance being cast before complacent middle-class and tourist-laden audiences. One can only assume that he was on cloud nine on Monday night, as the first of the productions staged by the repertory company under his aegis, and that of artistic director Jude Kelly, was unveiled. Surrounded by other critics and assorted glitterati (well, Prunella Scales), it wasn't the easiest night on which to spot the hallowed "real people", though there seemed a fair number tucking into ice-creams at half time.

Whether it reaches the right people or not remains to be seen, but this The Seagull, as droll as it is elegiac, is clearly a worthwhile revival. McKellen has wisely and fittingly opted to play the part of Dr Dorn. Wisely, because the charismatic medic is the still centre around which the play's inflated and easily punctured bohemian egos whirl. He earns, rather than grabs, the limelight. Fittingly, because it is Dorn who encourages the novice playwright, Konstantin, in a search for a new dramatic aesthetic.

McKellen does wonders to this potentially non-descript part, his Dorn a jovial old roue, reining in the vestiges of youthful waywardness. When he confronts Will Keen's wonderfully self-conscious Konstantin after the latter's abortive attempt to impress his fading actress mother, Arkadina, with his high-flown poetic drama, you sense there is a life-and-talent -affirming enthusiasm in his avuncular advice. In his introduction to his succinct translation, Tom Stoppard suggests that Konstantin's dramatic efforts are too inert ever to succeed, but if anything, Jude Kelly's production reminds you that the intense young man is too surrounded by self-obsessives for anything truly lifelike to communicate itself in his art.

You are aware of tiny toings and froings across the bare wooden stage that divides the audience in the Courtyard theatre - adorned at either end with a few stick-like trees and blank, charcoal-coloured facades - but the psychological stasis keeps breaking through. Clare Higgins is a bustling Arkadina, dragging her writer-lover, Trigorin (gangly Timothy Walker), under the table. Her accompanying seduction ("you're the only hope for writing in Russia"), like many other lines, gets a laugh, but it also communicates how in sway affection is here to received ideas of success.

The Seagull was a notorious disaster when it opened in St Petersburg 100 years ago. Nowadays, it's easy to pay lip-service to its greatness. This production has an ensemble relish that allows an audience to bring as much, and take away as much, as it wants. And for that, Leeds is to be envied.

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