THEATRE: The Seagull Old Vic, London

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The Independent Culture
In the past few years, we've been subjected to a spate of grossly over-directed productions of Chekhov's The Seagull. First there was John Caird's Olivier version which opened with the whole cast drifting across a twilight stage, like Pirandello characters in search of an author, and which went on to enclose the action in a series of four gilt picture-frames. Then there was Robert Sturua's doggedly perverse account which turned Dr Dorn into a detached intermediary between stage and audience, and which was full of wearisomely editorialising ideas, like having Trigorin, the celebrity novelist who is never off duty, blatantly scribble down notes, even at the end as he observed the effect of that famous off-stage gunshot.

By rights, therefore, you should feel grateful for the straightforwardness of Peter Hall's new staging in which the hand of the director is much less obtrusively evident. But his production leaves well alone to the undue extent of rarely freshening one's perceptions of the material. The brilliantly observed inconsistencies and self-contradictions of which Chekhov's characters are composed are brought, in the main, to only half- hearted life.

The most impressive features of the evening are Tom Stoppard's new version of the script and Victoria Hamilton's vivid, deeply felt Nina. Dispensing with what he calls the "ledger" principle of translation (whereby "everything on the Russian side of the line is accounted for on the English side"), Stoppard has produced a vigorously speakable text.

The fact that the central relationships mirror those in Hamlet is further reflected here in sly, jokey Shakespearean allusions ("I never think about old age or death. What will be will be, if it be not now - and so on," declares Stoppard's Akadina, breezily yoking a half-remembered snatch of Hamlet to a clunking cliche, as an airy professional actress well might.

The translator's instinct for comedy helps heighten the humour in Chekhov's situations. When Dominic West's Konstantin moodily marches in and plonks a dead seagull at her feet, this Nina retorts: "I mean, look at this seagull, a symbol if ever I saw one, but of what, I'm sorry, I've no idea." The embarrassing mixture of obviousness and nebulousness in Konstantin's gesture is beautifully highlighted in that exasperated parade of would-be saviour- faire. It reminded me of a conversely great moment in a John Guare play, where the hero muses: "I don't know much about symbols, but I'd say when frozen flamingos fall out of the sky, good times are not in store."

In the first three acts, Ms Hamilton's Nina is positively aglow with the ardour of youthful inexperience and keyed up to orchestra pitch (her guilelessly eager performance of Konstantin's experimental play is a hilarious expose of its pretentiousness). In the last, veering between near-delirious tears and a desolately shrugging matter-of-factness, she's become a battered realist who, here, trudges prosaically, instead of poetically flying, out of the play.

Mr West could make a splendid Konstantin, but neither he nor the production are helped by Felicity Kendal who, as his selfish, jealously manipulative great-actress mother, runs her usual gamut, all the way from "pert" to "roguish". With the dimpling Ms Kendal about as likely to deliver the part in Esperanto as risk alienating an audience, you feel more embarrassed about the wildly unsuitable wig inflicted on Michael Pennington's Trigorin than you do about the mortifying painfulness of the central mother-son relationship.

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