In film and theatre there’s rarely anything so tedious as having to sit through stories in which writers agonise over the place of their genius in the world. The last remotely bearable story in that genre was Stephen King’s Misery, in which an obsessed fan shatters the ankles of a writer with a large sledge hammer. King’s horror tale is as much a story about a writer’s struggle with his craft as it is about how fame warps human interaction.
Anton Chekhov’s early play The Seagull mocks the notoriously self-obsessed profession by putting two writers, the famous Boris and the aspiring Konstantin centre stage. Chekhov too celebrates the slow torture of his cast of artists. He puts them through emotions as if they were states of matter in a condensation apparatus: ecstasy, infatuations, neglect, tears, jealousy and self-harm. Away from their bohemian home turf and on the country estate of the ailing retired civil servant Sorin, Simeon loves Marcia loves Konstantin loves Nina loves Boris loves Irina loves herself. In Simon Stephen’s new version at the Lyric Hammersmith, Sorin’s doctor, a shrewd and upright Paul Higgins, cuts through the perfect chain of unrequited obsession: “All this love does nobody any good at all.” Yet, love has got very little to do with it.
For Chekhov 120 years ago, writing was perhaps less of a ubiquitous life-style choice as it appears to be today (just check the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter). How does a millennial Seagull deal with that shift? First of all, Stephen’s crisp and clever new version of this darkly comic tale makes clear that it is not writing as an intellectual achievement that wrecks these poor souls. As they wax lyrical about their craft, it is their hunt for success and approval that debauches and ruins the lives that are touched by that craving.
More than that, this is a Seagull that is entertaining and funny. Stephens’ last Chekhov, an adaptation of The Cherry Orchard with Katie Mitchell at the Young Vic, was an intellectually sound but ultimately disaffecting affair. Here, under Sean Holmes’ direction, the creative gears seem to have clicked into place. From a plastic curtain forest draped in the background to the moveable lighting scaffolding, Hyemi Shin’s design gives a distraction-free playing space that foregrounds the theatricality of this version. With its many asides that break the fourth wall, Stephens pounces on the self-referential nature of the original, effectively raising the Hamlet references slumbering within text. And as with a good Hamlet, comedy and drama have become close allies on the inevitable path to the characters’ doom.
This is nowhere clearer than in Leslie Sharp’s brilliantly loathsome, vain, preening prima donna, Irina. Threatened by burgeoning talents, she entertainingly quips and bullies her son into soul-crushing mediocrity. Much has been said about the differences between Irina’s calculated abuse and the wide-eyed Nina, an aspiring actress, but both are ensnared by the promise of being with the writer genius Boris, the handsome and glib Nicholas Gleaves. A contrast to the perfectly-coiffed but slipping persona of Irina is the quiet desperation of Pauline, a woman married to the inane caretaker of the estate. Michelle Austin finds a beautiful sadness in the doctor’s continued refusal to free her character from her unhappy marriage.
There remains, however, an unsatisfactory sting about how the Lyric’s new version cannot resist the temptation to stage the ruination of Nina as a visual spectacle. In the opening scene Adelayo Adedayo sports a ‘joyeux’ tank top; she is a happy soul with stars in her eyes. By the end, she is in a grubby, fluttering gown, a ghost of her former self. She is resigned and accepting of her lot. In the story, all the men universally flail at the challenges and demands the female characters stake out. The writers in the play, men repulsed by their own inadequacy and lack of success, are pathetic and rightly punished — one fatally, the other by ignorance — yet the women keep being ground down. Rendered all-too-ready accomplices in a system that celebrates male power and genius, they too are punished for their infatuations. In the context of growing feminist resistance against such ideas this is an assumption in the original text that a new version could have probed more vigorously. Perhaps with glimmers of solidarity between characters, or, if necessary, a sledge hammer.
The Seagull is on until 4 November 2017 at the Lyric Hammersmith. Click here for more details.