THEATRE: The Seagull; Donmar Warehouse, London

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The Independent Culture
Actors are supposed to wish each other "Break a leg"; you suspect that Mark Bazeley has heard rather too many jokes on that score just lately, so we'll just take it as read. The reason I mention this is that, as we were informed on the way into the Donmar for the press night of The Seagull last Thursday, Bazeley had injured his leg and would therefore be playing Konstantin, the romantic young writer, with the aid of a crutch: this was not, we were assured, meant to be taken as part of the interpretation. As it turned out, the crutch suited the part rather well, heightening the sense that Konstantin, with his high artistic ideals and his fits of self-loathing and despair, is an outsider; and in Bazeley's fine performance, the intensity of his inner anger seemed to be magnified by the scuttling, awkward gait he was forced to adopt from time to time.

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)

Robert Hanks