In 1886, a group of Russia’s bright young things spend the summer together on the banks of the Volga. They sing, discuss their artistic ambitions, fall in love – and shoot a seagull. This atmospheric new production staged within the Menier Gallery space is an intriguing investigation of how stories are made and where they come from. Based on real lives and drawn from letters and diaries of the time, the play draws its inspiration from the summer Anton Chekhov spent with his friends ten years before he wrote The Seagull. Chekhov would base his most famous plays on the events of that summer, as subsequent years saw him moving away from a career in medicine to that of a writer.
Staying with him at the riverside dacha are the painter Isaac Levitian; musician and friend of Tchaikovsky,Vasily Kalinnikov; and the actress and friend of Stanislavski, Vera Kommisarevskaya. This is a gathering of the beautiful and the damned; like Chekhov all are destined to die young and at the height of their fame. Kommisarevskaya, considered the best actress in Russia at the time, played Nina on The Seagull‘s opening night; in Lizzie Reedman’s play the actress is shown to possess a scathing, dry wit while Chekhov, the young medic, angers his artistic friends by using their troubles as narrative fodder.
The music that punctuates the production is reminiscent of the folk noir of The Decemberists. Skilfully and engagingly handled, the music is integral to the feel of the piece. The production company, Ruby in the Dust, call what they do ‘music-scape'; neither straight drama nor musical theatre, it feels like a cross between a painter’s landscape and a film’s soundscape. Violin, accordion, banjo and dance help create a glorious atmosphere and the line between the actors and the spectators gently dissolves. As the cast move around the ramshackle room of their bohemian idyll, the audience share the heady excitement and suffer the longing to be surrounded by ‘remarkable’ people that informs so much of Chekhov’s work.
The possibility that The Seagull‘s doomed love affair was based on real people- and that the symbol of the seagull originated from the events Chekhov used it to symbolise – is fascinating. Instead of a play within a play, here we have a subtext within a subtext. In The Seagull, the dead bird inspires the writer, Trigorin: “An idea suddenly came into my head. A subject for a short story: A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake. She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she’s happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom. Like this seagull” This becomes the play’s silent drive and in re-framing it, Reedman’s response to the play allows us to unpick the image even further.
The production conjures a Chekhovian atmosphere without ever feeling like a parody. A horribly familiar ache can be felt in its silences, as boredom and ordinary disappointment take on epic dimensions. Moments containing everything are interspersed with moments containing nothing as we, like the characters, feel the terror of not being able to differentiate. This intelligent production works on several levels: it’s equal parts cabaret, fairytale, tragedy and exercise in literary analysis.