The Seagull, Royal Court, London<img src=""></img >

Paul Taylor
Monday 29 January 2007 01:00

After eight years as its artistic director, Ian Rickson signs off at the Royal Court with a fine, valedictory production of The Seagull. In some respects, it's a strange choice of play for this particular swansong.

During his regime, he abandoned the policy of counter-pointing new work with classic revivals. This is the first classic costume drama that Rickson has ever directed. Seen in another light, though, it makes for a rather apt finale. Konstantin, Chekhov's aspiring, young writer, is fired, at the start, by a Royal Court-like mission. He wants to break with tradition and usher in the Theatre of the Future, and he finds, as more than a few dramatists have done in Sloane Square, that the public are by no means ready for it - just as the audience was unprepared for the innovations in The Seagull itself, when it was premiered in St Petersburg.

In a role that's a far cry from the ghastly Gareth in The Office, Mackenzie Crook gives a touchingly truthful performance as Konstantin - his lanky body and injured eyes conveying the love-starved neediness of a youth who is mortified to lose both his neglectful mother and his starry-eyed girlfriend to an older, experienced and successful writer, Trigorin. As the latter, Chiwetel Ejiofor seems far too straightforward and honourable - surely a writer who is as self-conscious as he is about the deadliness of turning the whole of life into "copy" would be more aware of his effect on Carey Mulligan's superlative Nina, the girl seduced by his self-deprecating professional sob-story. Mulligan breaks your heart as she declines from fresh-faced fan to the distraught survivor of betrayal.

Most of the secondary roles have been cast with a keen instinct for the characters' idiosyncrasies. Paul Jesson is particularly good as Shamrayev, bringing out all the pompous ostentation and manipulative guile of this estate manager who is both a name-dropping sucker-up and theatre bore. As the leading lady in more senses than one, Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent. Veering between grande dame loftiness and low-down spite, her Arkadina is a mistress of the catty, brilliantly timed put-down. It's a wonderfully nimble and funny performance, darkening into black farce as she demonstrates the desperateness with which she clings to Trigorin.

Using an adroit translation by Christopher Hampton, this production of Seagull feels a bit uneven, but it has a strongly poetic and Chekhovian sense of people co-existing in their separate, ill-assorted solitudes.

To 17 March (020-7565 5000)

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