Tuesday, 20 February 2007

The Seagull

14th February 2007

Ian Rickson is the outgoing artistic director of the Royal Court and The Seagull is his farewell production for the theatre.

While appearing to be about nothing much – as Chekhov himself slyly observes during the course of the action – The Seagull deals with art, creativity, acting, ennui and failure to communicate. Each character is to some extent the victim of thwarted ambition: some rail against this to a greater or lesser extent (Konstantin, Masha), while others struggle on with their disappointing lives (Medvedenko, Masha, Sorin).

The awkwardness of the group of people who know each other both too well and too little is brilliantly conveyed in their clumsy conversations and leaden jokes. Long before the comedy of embarrassment – which is the staple of so much of today’s television and stand-up comedy – Chekhov was employing the technique – perhaps more subtly – in late 19th century Russia. And this perhaps helps explain the hostile reaction The Seagull received at its premiere.

In contrast to Katie Mitchell’s controversially received production at the National towards the end of last year, Rickson’s appears more conventionally straightforward. It still, however, gets to the heart of this work and while we may laugh at the characters from time to time we still understand and empathise with their condition.

The humour and pathos of the piece are clear. Every character is suffering from disappointment or an unwillingness to engage with the real. Chekhov presents us with a sick society that it slowly going nowhere – yet its pathway is littered with casualties.

Kristin Scott Thomas’s Arkadina is a monster, yet she has appeal - we can see why she is a feted stage actress and why the people in her life bend to her will – yet her selfishness and egocentricity will cost her her son. Her dismissal of Nina’s acting abilities is breathtakingly callous – yet a cruelly accurate assessment of the girl’s talent.

The rest of this stellar cast gives a strong ensemble performance. Mackenzie Crook as the weedy and possibly talentless Konstantin performs with tortured neediness. All the actors are worthy of mention but special mention is due to Carey Mulligan as a youthful, enthusiastic Nina destroyed by her contact with artistic pretension and Trigorin’s exploitation of her admiration for him. Katherine Parkinson as Masha – bitter, drunk, disappointed – is an excellent comic presence. Pierce Quigley’s teacher is played to perfection as a good man battered by cruel circumstances and manipulative people.

As important as the main action driving the narrative forward is cast’s responses to what we all see. This is where the essence of Chekhov lies. For example, the look Yakov gives Arkadina after piling the stage with her suitcases for a putative departure; she having done nothing to advance the leaving, claims to be exhausted.

The set is shabby and of natural material, yet possesses a semblance of solidity – and so reflects the characters in the drama. The lighting – naturalistic – candles and oil lamps: soft and shady. It’s worth staying in your seat during the interval just to watch the stage for the second act being constructed.

Altogether, this is an excellent production and a fitting conclusion to Ian Rickson’s tenure at the Royal Court.

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