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A CurtainUp Review
When I saw Chekhov's Ivanov at the Almeida a few years ago, a Russian emigrée said to me, "Life in Russia is like a three act opera every day." In nineteenth century Russian plays, they sit around in the country, encompassing ennui grips them and they talk about the agony, powerless to change any of it. They can erupt suddenly in a fit of great anger or despair and there is often the sound of a gunshot in the last act.
This is obviously a simplistic view, although there is more than an iota of truth in it. What these Russian plays give us, like Russian novels, is a wonderful atmosphere and an awareness of the monotony and inevitability of human existence. Chekhov's first act will inspire laughter, but while we have to laugh at the ridiculous, what generates the laughter is painful. The second act is tragedic.
The story of The Seagull is of a family: Irina Arkadina, the mother and an actress past her best and wishing that she were younger; her son Konstantin hopes to be a famous writer but is under the shadow of his famous mother. He is in love with an aspiring actress, Nina, who is infatuated by the novelist Trigorin, who is Arcadina's lover. Masha, daughter of the estate manager secretly loves Konstantin. Medvedenko, the schoolteacher loves Masha. So there we have it, no one satisfied with their lot, unrequited love everywhere, selfishness, thwarted desire and never enough money.
The seagull, shot at the beginning of the play, is symbolic of the destruction of Nina. Shakespearean references are strong, with Konstantin and his mother speaking a few lines of the bedroom scene from Hamlet and Nina, like Ophelia, broken through her association with this family.
Wry humour and tragedy hangs on the believability of the young self absorbed writer Konstantin. The part difficult, calling on him to be spoilt and unattractive, yet also having to enlist our sympathy with his dilemma as the son of a more famous parent, and later as an abandoned lover. John Light, under Adrian Noble's measured and intelligent direction, is wholly credible in the part. Penelope Wilton is a fine Madame Arkadina. She is a super comedienne and her timing as she delivers those vain, bitchy lines is second to none. Nina sensitively played by Justine Waddell -- posing ridiculously like Sarah Bernhardt in Konstantin's play but having us feel sorry for her when she reappears as a broken reed after being cast off by her lover and failing as an actress. iamh Lineham's Masha brings laughter as she falls into drunken, manic-depressive mode on vodka slammers. Richard Johnson and Richard Pasco show off their seasoned talent in cameo parts.
Vicki Mortimer's set is restrained, with the light and comfortable country house is hemmed in by tall columns of red brick. The furniture looks authentic and the costumes are stately. Paule Constable's lighting adds to the atmosphere, especially when Nina returns to the house in near darkness.
Although Peter Gill's new adaptation missed in places for me, (I prefer the Stoppard) this is a small gripe lost in the praise due to this illuminating production from the Royal Shakespeare Company with its excellent ensemble performances of one of Chekhov's great plays.
Editor's Note: For CurtainUp reviews of other productions of this and additional Chekhov plays, check out our backgrounder on the playwright in our Playwright's Album.