Based around the characters and situations of Chekhov’s The Seagull, FellSwoop’s Most Drink In Secret reinvents the original, densely argumentative tale as a dysfunctional family drama set in what the company describes as ‘a romanticised USSR’ in the 1980s.
Medvedenko – now doctor, rather than schoolteacher – prescribes antibiotics; Trigorin is impressed by Nina’s taste for Nabokov and Joy Division; and Kostia (i.e. Konstantin) presents an abstract arthouse film instead of a piece of symbolist theatre.
The plot, too, takes different turns – most notably with Kostia’s fate and the three-way relationship between Arkadina, Trigorin and Nina – nor does it end with the two-years-later fourth act. More significantly, where The Seagull thrives on subtext and the barely visible tip of iceberg-like emotions, Most Drink In Secret draws those same emotions and their attendant dilemmas out into the open. It’s like taking the back off a computer and looking at the wiring inside, the connections which make the thing work.
This, presumably, is why FellSwoop describe the piece as a ‘retelling’ and ‘an interrogative adaptation’. As an idea, it’s an intriguing one. Like Charles Marowitz’s variations on Shakespeare, it opens new perspectives, condenses Chekhov’s multiple tensions into simpler, sharper scenes and detects resonances with modern-day obsessions (fame, happiness etc). Similarly, the focus is very much on the seven core characters, with the cast of three – Clem Garritty, Bertrand Lesca and Fiona Mikel – switching roles in rapid succession. From the audience’s point of view, this manic doubling up is pretty confusing at first, but the company soon turn an apparent limitation to their advantage, each actor easing between their respective characters with prodigious fluidity. There’s both comedy and poignancy to be had too from scenes where, for example, Arkadina and Nina (both Mikel) or Sorin and Trigorin (both Lesca) appear simultaneously, with, as it were, characters flickering in and out of visibility.
Rather like Little Bulb, FellSwoop are a young company evidently dripping with talent and brimful of creative ideas. Taking a similarly portmanteau approach, they stitch adept physicality into each scene, pepper the action with atmospheric visual ‘moments’ and, in between scenes, deliver near a capella versions of songs by 80s artists like Kate Bush and The Smiths.
As with Little Bulb’s Operation Greenfield, though, it’s also hard not to feel that there’s too much going on here. Some of the visual ‘moments’ (Arkadina and Trigorin in a car, Sorin at the lake’s edge, Kostia in the lake) seem purely decorative, merely illustrating events whose emotional impact has been and gone because they’ve already been anticipated or even reported in the preceding dialogue. Similarly, the songs, whilst entertainingly delivered, are really only interludes, not fully integrated into a drama which could happily hold its own without them. Morrissey’s lament ‘Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want’, after all, doesn’t really add much to these seven characters’ emotional stalemate, other than as a smart contemporary reference.
On the other hand – and again like Operation Greenfield – the sheer energy and inventiveness of the production and the breakneck performances count for much. As seventy-five minutes in the theatre go, these certainly don’t feel wasted. Purists, perhaps, might want to argue about the liberties taken, but Chekhov might well have approved – though not without adding some advice along the lines of ‘less is more’.