Anya Reiss seems a suitably exciting choice to pen a new version of Chekhov’s familiar tragicomedy. The spiky family drama of The Acid Test had a decidedly Chekhovian tone, albeit one inflected with a strong contemporary voice. Sadly, her intervention here has been all too slight.
Set nominally on the Isle of Man in what could just about be the 21st century, Reiss’ version makes only the most modest and superficial nods to its contemporary setting. Characters walk on stage listening to iPods and puffing on Pall Mall blues, but when they open their mouths the production is sucked back a hundred years and only the occasional, rather desperate mention of mobile phone contracts make any effort to anchor it in the here and now. There is the briefest allusion to the cult of celebrity, but it’s never explored in any depth or pursued to its logical conclusion. Trigorin still yearns to be Tolstoy, Konstantin still anticipates the symbolists, nothing new is sought out or skewered: having been tasked with reimagining the play it would be fairer to say Reiss has changed the desktop theme.
Modernisation aside – and it pretty much sweeps itself aside – we’re left with a competent but unengaging production of The Seagull that too frequently confuses understated for inert. Russell Bolam directs a mumbly and rambling production that echoes around designer Jean Chan’s minimalist set. The social satire is muted and the comedy far less effective than it should be. Things improve considerably in the final scene, where Chan’s set opens backwards to reveal a spectral chandelier hanging ominously in an antechamber and Joseph Drake’s Konstantin finally discovers the golden balance of heroism and vain stupidity in his showdown with Lily James’ rather thin Nina. There is something wild and wistful about Bolam’s handling of the climax that is unfortunately absent elsewhere.
There are some convincing performances from the supporting cast, with Emily Dobbs’ impressing as Masha despite being saddled with cringe-worthy stoner-goth accoutrements, and Sasha Waddell is a brittle and fabulous Arkadina. Malcolm Tierney steals the show as Sorin, if his voice is occasionally lost in the underdressed vaults.
In an interview for this very website Reiss noted that she had deliberately avoided taking a ‘sledgehammer’ to the text, but her touch is so gentle and influence so pallid that her involvement seems almost irrelevant in what is truthfully a rather limp and inconsequential updating.