When the characters go quiet during Matthew Dunster’s production of The Seagull nothing stirs except the wind in the ash trees that tower above Regent’s Open Air Theatre. Frozen inside themselves, unable to act or change anything after prancing crazily around Sorin’s country estate, they are as glassy, as opaque and as hard edged as the big mirror that hovers above them reflecting the grass stage. In these moments, nothing is revealed. Backs are turned, faces averted, bodies are stiff and cut off from each other (as Chekhov intended) and the audience is no nearer to “getting inside” these people (as Chekhov didn’t intend).
These moments would be more wonderful, if this strange frozen quality did not also apply to the play’s major themes and concerns. And the text is not so much pared back, but slightly embellished, so no one can doubt what is going on. It’s a strange one-dimensional affair, and whilst it highlights ruthless ambition (Nina’s) versus the depression and lack lustre of a man who has it all (Trigorin) it somehow seems to give less weight to the ideas of art and realism, art and love and Konstantin’s own struggle: there is less room for Chekhov’s complication, ambiguity, contrariness and the contradiction that comes with life.
Does the mirror mean we are meant to see everything as ridiculous and false, including this play?Although it echoes Hamlet’s “’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image” (and the lines which Konstantin and his mother swap early on, which are the direct Shakespeare and not the softer Russian translation as Chekhov intended) emphasising Konstantin’s plea for naturalism and a new kind of theatre as opposed to a bored realism, and although it serves as a continual visual metaphor for the power of art to either transform or merely reflect (which is what this production does) as well as a looking glass into which they all egotistically gaze and there are some great moments (at one point, as a servant dusts it, it looks like she is waving a magic wand, as if to make dreams come true) it’s a continual presence that seems to tarnish the more important and serious themes of the play: love and art. In fact, its presence seems to negate them.
Instead, the idea of celebritism seems to come more to the fore, with Trigorin and Nina wishing that they “could be inside the other” for various reasons.
Labourers Yakov and a character called Natasha, laugh continually and snipe at their masters’ melancholy and passive ways and swim naked in the tiny Pre-Raphaelite moat that serves as a lake. I get it that they are, for all their lowly status (and because of) more in tune with nature than this Konstantin ever can be, but I don’t understand why they have to continually scorn the other characters or act as guides as to how the audience should feel.
Voice-over is used to explore several characters’ asides. But the effect is to make it feel like we are watching Forrest Gump: the tone of the voices is so reassuring that it makes them instantly agreeable, rather than giving us a sense of despair, pain, suffering or self doubt that such characters like Dorn or Masha or Konstantin go through. And the striking chord-like effect that seems to punctuate the end of every scene or dramatic pause?
Matthew Tennyson, as Konstantin, gives us a sufficiently vulnerable young wannabe author and there is a hint of the romantic artist suffering in his ivory tower. His Konstantin is cold and aloof, real emotions are repressed, although he is as hectic on the stage as everyone else. Janie Dee as Irina Arkadina seems more on an even keel, her relationships harshly defined and defying much ambiguity. Alex Robertson as Trigorin suggests a hidden, sly and tired personality. It is hard to see what Nina falls in love with though: lip service is given to the famous lives that such people lead, but Trigorin barely fills the stage with any arrogant, celebrity presence. Nina herself, played by Sabrina Bartlett, is hard and calculating yet not very vulnerable. It is difficult to understand why Konstantin is attracted to her as she never offers, or presents much softness. Danny Webb as Dorn is evasive rather than dispassionately cruel, aloof rather than critically superior.
Lisa Diveney’s interpretation of Masha is a little more explosive, modern and relatable to: she at times feels like she has stepped out of another play altogether, or at least off the set of von Trier’s Melancholia.
In fact all the performances are enjoyable, especially when the play seems less tampered with after the interval. Yet, even so, it feels as if the play’s ending has more in keeping with Ophelia’s demise in Hamlet than with what Chekhov intended, and as such it feels melodramatic. This isn’t what Chekhov meant surely? The question is, does it matter?