“I’m in mourning … for my life.”
This line from the opening scene of sums up The Seagull‘s theme of unrealised hopes and dreams: the characters, never happy with their own lot, are in constant yearning for something out of their reach. The comedy arises from the fact that the characters are also painfully conscious of the ridiculousness of these yearnings.
These comic and tragic aspects of Chekhov’s drama are beautifully presented in Brett Heath’s current production. It works particularly well in its comedy, although its tragic elements in the second half are not quite as successful.
The story is of a young woman in the country, Nina, who falls in love with a famous author, Boris, and follows him to Moscow. In the play, Nina’s ensuing demise is represented by a seagull that has been shot.
The play opens at a country house by a lake where the famous actress Irena is returning for holidays with her lover, the writer Boris. Irena’s son Kostya, a struggling writer madly in love with Nina, becomes increasingly jealous and enraged at Boris’ success in writing and love. Other characters in the play have their own personal tragedies. For example, Marsha who is loved by the schoolmaster Simon is hopelessly in love with Kostya, and Irena’s brother Peter regrets not living the life he dreamed of. Each character’s story is given loving attention, highlighting Chekhov’s theme of tragedy in everyday life. By the fourth act of the play the characters can no longer see any humour in their situation.
Central to the production’s success is the new translation by David Clendinning which uses clear, modern expressions to ensure Chekhov’s story is both accessible and highly dramatic. The production also takes advantage of the intimate space of the Metro Arts Studio (a small rehearsal space) to create a relaxed style. As the action unravels the actors watch from chairs on the side of the space, clearly establishing an informal “storytelling” style. The set, costumes and lighting are simple and effective. In particular the contrast between hay on the floor and Irena’s sumptuous gown serves to accentuate Irena’s snobbery in relation to country life.
The pacing is slow and relaxed, allowing Chekhov’s story to unfold. Heath achieves just the right balance between realism and theatrical exaggeration. The comedy is not forced but emerges as the characters realise the absurdity of their own situation.
Heath also delivers a convincing performance as Boris the self-absorbed writer, matched by Dragitsa Debert who perfectly portrays Irena, the self-obsessed drama queen who will pull out all her “emotional tricks” to keep the man she loves. Anna Vella occasionally over-pitches her performance of Nina, but convincingly conveys her character’s youthful energy.
Highlights of the production include a scene in which Nina and Boris are flirting. This scene draws the audience into the characters’ anticipation and the awkwardness and self-consciousness of their courtship. As Boris dramatically exclaims “I’m passionate …”, the audience feels Nina’s rush of excitement until he continues “… about writing”.
In a final scene in which Nina and Kostya meet after several years apart, the other characters sit against the cyclorama (the movie screen of the studio, used to excellent effect). This creates a feeling of starkness and cold reality as the true extent of Nina’s tragedy is revealed.
However, it is when the story moves into tragedy that the performances weaken. Generally the actors don’t manage extremes of emotions as well as the subtle comedy of the first half of the play, and their voices often seem strained as they tackle the emotional heights. This is a fault that is forgiven by the intimate space of the rehearsal studio. (However I would like to see how cast members tackle a larger theatre space.)
Michael Sams as Kostya deals most successfully with the range of emotions as we follow his story from idealistic love to disillusionment. I felt that in this production it was not Nina’s story but Kostya’s that was the real tragedy.
Overall, I highly recommend this production, which is able to draw an audience into Chekhov’s tale through the honesty and informality of its performance style.