Pan Pan Theatre Company’s The Seagull and Other Birds is simultaneously a stripped-down, sensitively acted modern-language adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and an explosion of the very premises of psychological realism that such plays are built on. It’s constantly shifting its tactics, at one moment self-consciously displaying theatrical artifice and at the next straightforwardly and realistically playing a Chekhovian scene. The original Seagull (which could reasonably be described both as a comedy about the pretensions of artists and the pretentiousness of the avant-garde, and as a tragedy about the void that rushes in when artistic ideals are punctured), is fertile ground for this kind of exploration. Chekhov’s text lends itself to twisty rabbit-holes of introspection and provides the framework to set up plays-within-plays and other narrative diversions.
The incongruity of the various elements collaged into the piece, alongside the sheer exuberance with which all the ingredients are stirred, can be jarring, even puzzling. But the whole thing comes together into something weirder and greater than the sum of its parts, mixing rigorous movement theatre with precise, subtle acting choices, truly weird sight gags, and free dance sections to pop songs and audience participation. With framing device after framing device the layers become almost dizzying. It’s impossible to analyse or do anything other than go along with for the ride.
What anchors it is the solidity of its roots in The Seagull. Director Gavin Quinn and the ensemble of writers (Quinn, Dick Walsh, Derrick Devie, and Dan Riordan) have pared Chekhov’s four acts into roughly an hour, substituted the actors’ real names for the Russian characters, and stirred in modern colloquial language and cultural references, but they’ve kept the core of the relationships and the human conflicts of the original. Quinn gets a pleasing unity of tone out of his ensemble of actors, who have mastered the Brechtian technique of performing with true emotional conviction and at the same time never letting themselves or us in the audience lose sight of the fact we’re watching fiction.
That latter, self-consciously theatrical aspect is helped by the fact that everyone is wearing ballet rehearsal clothes. Nina, Arkadina and Sorin in pale tights and tutus, Konstantin and Trigorin in white shirts and tights and Masha in unrelieved black.
Interspersed and interwoven are other texts, scenes and ideas, ranging from a ballet class conducted for members of the audience to snippets of Hamlet and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and scenes from several new plays, such as The Shag and The Oyster Catcher created by members of the company. Some of this material echoes and reflects on The Seagull in thematic ways, some is just diversionary, but all of it constantly code-switches, dipping in and out of time and place and character and idiom. Even in the moments that are closest to realism, there’s a constant awareness of the mechanics of theatre and the mechanics of story-telling.
It’s imperfect, of course, but its imperfections, and its sense of being unfinished and rough around the edges, are part of the whole. The whole thing is a little longer than it needs to be and arguably resonates more if you know Chekhov’s original. The final scene, which keeps on going in an extended fadeout after The Seagull‘s denouement, feels superfluous (although it’s a lovely scene). While there are moments that are baffling, bemusing, and frustrating, every second of the piece is done with commitment and a kinetic sense of the entire ensemble as a living organism. It’s a strange piece, but it’s got some magic to it.
The Seagull and Other Birds is on until 2nd April 2016. Click here for tickets.