The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Anton Chekhov‘s “The Seagull,” currently in New York and soon to move to Minneapolis and Los Angeles, seems, at first, to be merely a skillful and familiar rendition of a masterpiece. It is expertly directed and well-acted. It comes with birch trees and samovars and peasants strumming balalaikas. But like many great works of art, the power of this production is cumulative. By the end of the evening, thanks to the exceptional actors, one leaves the theater moved by the struggles of these ordinary, imperfect characters. They chase love and art. They are profoundly hurt by the collisions of romance and reality. They live with the heaviness of unfulfilled lives and unrequited love. They carry on, as we all do, with humor, the numbing habits of family and social obligations, and a weary hope that life will someday, somehow, change.
Director Trevor Nunn and his actors deftly navigate between the exalted and the banal. Earnest declarations of love are made while tripping over a bench. One character talks about the weather while another, his heart broken, weeps. Lovers kiss tenderly in a twilit garden and a rude squawk is heard from an unseen frog.
Peasant workmen lounge and smoke onstage as the audience files in. A pair of dilapidated French doors, fantastically tall and narrow, and a tattered, impressionistic backdrop of a lake dominate the stage. The trunks of six thin birches, branchless and leafless, reach upwards. They pass, before stretching out of sight, through a platform of bare, gap-toothed planks, resembling a derelict stage hanging upside down. A makeshift white curtain is strung between two birches. Sounds of hammering and carpentry are heard from behind it, last-minute preparations for fledgling writer Konstantin’s play-within-a-play, to be performed by his adored Nina.
Konstantin (Richard Goulding), who lives on a country estate with his elderly uncle Sorin (William Gaunt), is the neglected and overshadowed son of the famous actress Arkadina (Frances Barber). Arkadina is visiting Konstantin and her brother Sorin for the summer. She has brought her younger lover with her, the well-known novelist Trigorin (Gerald Kyd). Nina (Romola Garai), an aspiring actress and daughter of a neighboring landowner, is at first in love with Konstantin but quickly becomes infatuated with the dashing Trigorin. Konstantin, in an anguished fit of jealousy, unsuccessfully attempts suicide. Trigorin returns Nina’s passion, and she decides, when Arkadina and Trigorin depart, to run away to Moscow to become an actress. She and Trigorin make secret plans to meet there. The conclusion of the play takes place two years later when the characters, scared and wounded by fate, return to confront the cruelty of life.
People come and go. They talk about their memories, about the practicalities of running a farm, about art. Card games are played in the evening. Not much happens onstage. But, as always when Chekhov is performed with sensitivity for the hidden undercurrents of human relationships, the play builds towards revelation.
“What happens on stage,” wrote Chekhov, “should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart.”
Chekhov’s plays, when they succeed as this one does, are finely tuned ensemble pieces. Each character is a distinct and vital thread in a complex tapestry. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s cast, whose inflections and timing are masterful, mingles Chekhov’s humor and pathos. The women are especially adept at creating vibrant, unique characters.
Monica Dolan’s pinch-voiced, spade-faced Masha seems physically tamped down, her spine compressed by the weight of her disappointment in life. Rage and apathy flit one after the other across her broad face. Her laugh, all bared teeth and open jaw, resembles a chimp’s fear grin more than any human expression of mirth. “Thank you for being kind to me,” she says haltingly to Trigorin after a conversation. It seems an intensely painful thing for her, starved for affection and alienated, to acknowledge simple kindness.
Frances Barber’s Arkadina, a celebrated actress “of a certain age,” is hilarious in her vanity. She is a raspy-voiced, man-eating diva, both imperious and petulant. Her meanness and self-interest are barely disguised by her flamboyant exuberance, and she brandishes her spider-like sexuality with calculated skill. Her relationship with her son, Konstantin, swings between tenderness and contempt. In the final moment of the play, unaware of the tragedy about to befall her, she laughs and laughs at an unheard joke. It’s a chilling, unscripted inspiration that captures her unwitting cruelty and oblivion.
The flighty and immature Nina, played by Romola Garai, veers close to being irritating. Her youth is overplayed, with pratfalls and flailing to indicate haste. But Garai, from the beginning, wisely lodges instability in Nina like a hairline crack. Her hands pluck nervously at her collar and skirt. Her voice quavers with barely contained idealism and she is vulnerable to easy tears. Her portrayal brings dimension and credibility to her final appearance in the play, a portrait of innocence not only lost but brutally violated.
Ben Meyjes brings vividness and compassion to the mousy, red-nosed schoolteacher Medvedyenko. Small and rumpled with a slightly huddled walk and a clear, piping voice, he is the essence of the overlooked, unremarkable man. Meyjes imparts the schoolteacher with a quiet acceptance of his own mediocrity. His dogged endurance to do the best he can in life, in spite of constant humiliation, is poignant and endearing.
This is a “Seagull” faithful to Chekhov in intention and design and execution. But Nunn and his actors have approached the established script as something unknown, mining each relationship, word and action for the human motivations, fears and yearnings driving them. New and stimulating angles surface from the well-worn and familiar.
Nunn, in an inspired and illuminating piece of staging, places the final moments of Nina’s last scene with Konstantin, a scene normally played indoors, outside in the garden. There, in the dark and the rain, the distraught Nina climbs on the now rotted stage of their youth and recites the opening lines — “Mankind, lionkind, eagle, and partridge …” — of Konstantin’s first attempt at a play, from the beginning of “The Seagull.” Through the black night emerges the memory of the evening years ago when Nina, full of romance and hope, dressed in white and lit by the moon, spoke the same words on the same stage. The thin film of the past, with its rapturous and youthful dreams, is superimposed on the present, a fairy castle mirage hovering over charred and wet ruins. It lasts a short moment. Soon there is only the rainy night again, and the unforgiving, bitter reality of the present.
“The Seagull,” in repertory with King Lear, is on a world tour. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production has played in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, and is in the United States until the end of October before returning to London.
By Anton Chekhov
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company
At the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, Sept. 7 to Sept. 29, 2007.
At the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Oct. 5 to Oct. 14, 2007.
www.guthrietheater.org (Tickets not available online).
At Royce Hall in Los Angeles, Oct. 19 to Oct. 28, 2007.
At the New London Theatre in London, starting Nov. 12, 2007 for a limited run.
0870 890 0141
With Frances Barber, Richard Goulding, William Gaunt, Ian McKellen (in select performances), Romola Garai, Guy Williams, Melanie Jessop, Monica Dolan, Gerlad Kyd, Jonathan Hyde, Ben Meyjes.
Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes.