What a thing to be misunderstood in the world. Chekhov’s play, a parade of missed connections by a summer lake, finds astonishing light in its sadness (to the surprise of some, The Seagull is a comedy). Leave it to Annie Ryan and Michael West of the nimble Corn Exchange to tease out its humour. Their instantly absorbing adaptation moves the action to contemporary Ireland where playwright Konstantin – whose agonising search for new art and love is hard enough – has been redrawn as a woman, Constance (Jane McGrath). As Waking The Feminists has shown, she has her work cut out for her in an industry notoriously hard for women to break through.
The change also makes for a lot of fun. When Constance puts on an experimental play, for instance, she runs her cues from a Macbook and instructs her audience to wear headphones – in other words, the recognisable paraphernalia of contemporary theatre. The dynamics are also more complex: Constance’s longing for the ingénue Nina (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman), like that of the housekeeper’s daughter Masha (Imogen Doel) for Constance herself, is imbued with the awkward shuffle towards gay acceptance.
With Ryan’s light directorial touch, these new themes easily take their place in the current of Chekhov’s play. Older characters, meanwhile, are more concerned with holding their ground. Derbhle Crotty’s electric Arkadina, an aging actress threatened by new trends, shifts constantly from offence to defence, from preying on people’s fear to playing on their pity in her outrageous crawl towards validation. Louis Lovett’s delightful doctor, not wanting any part of the drama, acts as the play’s commentator: “Oh dear’s everyone’s upset”.
It’s in that spirit – sceptical of the exceptional – where this production lands its biggest punches. When Constance takes up a guitar to jab the moody strums of Tom Lane’s music, she cuts the figure of any ignored young person singing alone in their room. When success does fly in with the celebrated author Trigorin, Rory Keenan nicely lifts the lid on the coolheaded artist to expose his fears of being a phony.
Keenan isn’t alone in an ensemble that, for the most part, can reach big for laughs and still hone in on the play’s tragedy. Unfortunately, in a pivotal scene towards the end, McGrath’s Constance and Hulme-Beaman’s Nina don’t quite have the flexibility to connect.
We’re better stirred elsewhere. The sad decline of Stephen Brennan’s guileless Sorin reminds us that in Chekhov, as in reality, life passes without ceremony. The Corn Exchange’s rich production, framed by close-up snaps of Paul O’Mahony’s gorgeous photorealist set, knows well that the bigger picture rarely takes shape; life, brutally, is glimpsed only in impressions.
The Seagull is on at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin until 16th October 2016. Click here for more details.