First Night: McKellen triumphs among real people

The Seagull West Yorkshire Playhouse Leeds

IN SEPTEMBER, Sir Ian McKellen, disillusioned by the treadmill performance being cast before complacent middle-class and tourist-heavy audiences, announced that he was abandoning the London stage - possibly forever - to work at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds for six months.

One can only assume that he was on cloud nine last 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 glitteratti (well, Prunella Scales), it wasn't the easiest night on which to spot the hallowed "real people", though there seemed to be a fair number tucking into ice-creams at half time.

Whether it reaches the right people or not remains to be seen, but this production of Chekhov's 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, scribbling away on his uncle's country estate, in a search for a new dramatic aesthetic.

McKellen does wonders to this potentially non-descript part, his Dorn is a jovial old roue reining in the vestiges of his youthful waywardness.

When he confronts Will Keen's wonderfully self-conscience Konstantin after the latter's abortive attempt to impress his fading actress mother, Arkadina (Clare Higgins) 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 to ever succeed but Jude Kelly's production reminds the audience 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 beloved writer-lover Trigorin (a 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 communicates also how affection here is in thrall to received ideas of success and how fatal that can be.

Although The Seagull was a notorious disaster when it first opened in St Petersburg a hundred years ago it is nowadays very 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 much to be envied.

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