With his shoulders shaking and his body bent low, Boris Trigorin brings himself off as his lover Irina verbally pleasures him, praising his creative skill, his gifts as a writer. It’s a glitteringly satirical moment, the writer as wanker. Once done, he appears to mop up the resulting mess with a page from his trusty notebook, the receptacle of so much mental seed-spilling.
We’re on first-name terms with the characters in John Donnelly’s adaption of The Seagull, no awkward, tongue-teasing patronyms here; Nina bares a breast while performing Konstantin’s fevered failure of a play and everyone says ‘bollocks’ a lot. But there’s more to this reworking than a generous scattering of swearwords, while Donnelly and director Blanche McIntyre haven’t quite burned the text and built on its ashes, as Konstantin wants to do to the ‘old theatre’ that so frustrates him, they have created something that feels contemporary, a thing of now, without ever forcing its hand. It’s not aggressive in its modernity, but it makes you look at the play afresh.
The characters talk about the strange veneer of fame and what it means to be an artist in terms that are recognisable, while Masha does her self-mourning in an LBD and sunglasses before adopting, on her marriage, a shapeless cardigan, the eternal garment of defeat.
McIntyre once again shows that she is a superb director of actors. Abigail Cruttenden’s Irina is not a theatrical caricature but a woman of a certain age and type, confident of her attractiveness, her centrality to the world, but still easily threatened, flippant in her treatment of Konstantin’s artistic endeavours, capable of breaking him with a single brutally dismissive line. Pearl Chanda’s Nina is all adolescent intensity, harbouring a consuming crush on Gyuri Sarossy’s Boris, a girl all too easily swept along on other people’s waves. Alexander Cobb’s Konstantin is a contradictory figure, an earnest young man convinced he can shrug off the past and create something entirely new, that he is the one to show the world where it’s been going wrong, while also a bit of a mummy’s boy (he even calls her ‘mummy’), desperate for Irina’s approval and praise.
There is a lot of comedy in Donnelly’s adaption, the situations, characters and collisions mined for their inherent humour, and more than a dash of audacity in his approach coupled with nice line in metatheatrical commentary. McIntyre’s production makes much use of the aside, the characters stepping to the front of the stage to address the audience directly. Laura Hopkins’ minimal design places a silvery screen at the back of the stage, a lake-like still thing, like a blank page in a notebook, upon which the characters scrawl (or rather spray, as they use squirt bottles, theatrical Windowlene), its clean clear surface becoming increasingly streaked and murky. There is no set as such, just a long wooden platform on a pivot, which serves as a jetty, a dining table, and in one of the production’s only missteps, a giant see-saw. The scene in which Irina and Nina lounge on this device, occasionally over-balancing the other, feels like an exercise in overstatement; the lighting however is gorgeous and golden throughout, each scene subtly shaded.
While the anguish of Konstantin and Nina’s last meeting – the latter damp-eyed and desperate, rapidly unravelling – isn’t as gutting as it might be, and the production struggles slightly to make the transition from tragicomedy to tragedy, it does what it sets out to do: it takes a play so frequently staged – Anya Reiss’ (by all accounts pallid) adaptation was only just performed at Southwark Playhouse in November last year – and makes a case for revisiting it once more, rooting Chekhov’s concerns in a world that belongs to us.