THEATRE: The Seagull; Donmar Warehouse, London
All the same, you could see why a warning was thought necessary - without foreknowledge, a gratuitous crutch would have seemed very out of place in Stephen Unwin's staging for English Touring Theatre. He resolutely declines any interpretative flourishes, preferring instead to serve Chekhov's text. It's an admirable approach, mostly carried through with intelligence and wit, so that if you are going to see one Seagull this summer - Tom Stoppard's translation is already running at the Old Vic - you should certainly give this one serious consideration.
There are a couple of buts, though. One is that the reluctance to interpret goes a little too far, leaving the characters in something of a vacuum. There's little sense of the history of Nina's romance with Konstantin, or Masha's unrequited passion. If you didn't know that Polina was Masha's mother, Sorin was Arkadina's brother and Shamraev his steward, Unwin gives you little in the way of clues. It feels - perhaps this is intentional - as if these people and their tangled relationships simply float into being as the play begins, and evaporate as it ends.
The other but is that the pleasingly unfussy quality of both Unwin's production and Stephen Mulrine's highly speakable translation isn't always matched by the performances: in particular, Cheryl Campbell's Arkadina is at times much too actressy for comfort. This may sound an odd complaint, given that Arkadina is an actress, and a self-dramatising streak is one of her characteristics. But you surely ought to feel that when she is being obviously self-dramatising, it's because she wants to draw attention to her feelings - her passion for her lover Trigorin, her maternal anxiety for Konstantin; instead, you feel she's simply drawing your attention to her capacity for self-dramatisation.
Elsewhere, flirting, gushing, unconsciously displaying just how self- centred she is, Campbell is very good. So are Duncan Bell as a pale, humorously self-deprecating Trigorin; Christopher Good, self-possessed, ironically detached as the doctor; Arthur Cox as the ailing Sorin, half afraid of decline, half welcoming it (he is, incidentally, replacing Denys Hawthorne at short notice). And Joanna Roth is properly radiant and pretty as Nina to begin with, rather over-achieving a sense of hysteria in the final act, after her abandonment by Trigorin. So, as I say, if you're going to see one Seagull, this may well be it. As for why you should see The Seagull at all, though, that's a question it doesn't quite answer.
To 6 Sept, Earlham St, London WC2 (0171-369 1732)
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