Attempted review of a most excellent Chekhov’s The Seagull

A new production of Chekhov’s play The Seagull has-

{So why is it called The Seagull?}
{Excuse me! Who are you?! And what are you doing in my theater review?}
{Just trying to help you get to the point. I hate those wordy, loud-mouthed reviewers.}
{I hadn’t even started yet!}
{And already prevaricating and going on about yourself…}
{Hrrumph. Apparently there are seagulls on the lakes in Russia,-}
{Ooooh, who knew?}
{-where the play is set , and Nina is compared to a seagull by Constantin and Tragorin, and the play ends with a stuffed seagull being placed on stage. Now may I begin?}
{You may. Start with the characters; Chekhov’s people always remind me of my neighbors.}

Irina Arkadina, a famous but aging actress, brings her lover, the successful writer Trigorin, to the country estate where her retired brother and her son live. Her son, Constantin, wants to be writer, and has a tempestuous relationship with his difficult, attention-seeking mother. Constantin loves the naive Nina, who wants to be a famous actress. The rest of the characters circle around the story of these four in this family comic-tragedy. Let’s just say things begin to unwind in a downward spiral when Nina runs off to Moscow and becomes Trigorin’s lover rather than an actress, and this light family comedy takes on tragic tones that have to be avoided in drawing room conversation.

{Little social-climbling slut!}
{Not really, more naive than anything. Now if you’ll please keep quiet!}

The Seagull is the first of Chekhov’s 4 major plays prior to his death from tuberculosis in 1904. When it was first staged in 1896, the audience booed so loudly that the actress playing Nina lost her voice from fear. It had the typical Chekhovian cast of fully-developed, ordinary characters who keep most of the action offstage, and interact trivially while talking around more serious matters. For instance, a certain writer blows his brains out offstage and we hear no formal discussion, just a whisper to get Irina away. Subtext of this type was an innovation, and helped bring theatrical convention away from melodrama and into the realms of realism.

The version being played at the Walter Kerr theater in New York city, through December 21st, was written by Christopher Hampton, who says “Chekhov used to be thought of as a lyrical, melancholy kind of writer, and he isn’t. He’s a very muscular, energetic, clear, lucid writer” in this interview with NPR. The strength of the dialogue really comes out in the exchanges, often heated, between Irina (Kristin Scott Thomas of Four Weddings and a Funeral and The English Patient fame) and Constantin (Mackenzie Crook, who is in the BBC version of The Office). Their relationship mirrors that of Hamlet and his mother, as Constantin hates his mother’s lover and vies for her respect and attention. This production actually took 9 of the original cast from the British Royal Court’s production, although Kristin Scott Thomas was a new and welcome addition.

{Yes, yes, that is all very well, but how was it? what did you think of the performance?}
{Oh, you mean this performance? the Ian Rickson production that I just saw?}
{Oh, go on then. That one, yes of course!}

I really enjoyed it.

{That’s it??? You got to say more than that.}

This highly-enjoyable production held my attention from the moment it subtly started, with a character walking out before the lights went down and the audience hushing itself. The different love-longings and sadness and disappointments of the characters was interspersed with laughter throughout, and kept this tragedy in content light in context. It was perfectly staged, with great sound and lighting. The actors were on the top of their game. Kristin Scott Thomas might have been over that top, but then the character Irina is meant to be over the top to some degree and it worked within the play. I really felt drawn into a different world, and was genuinely troubled by the appearance of Nina in the last act.

I think it was an excellent production of an excellent play. A perfect play, really, as it felt like a perfectly harmonious whole and the end was satisfying even while tragic. The characters were true to life throughout, and distinctive as people you live next to and see every day. I thought it was moving in the way life often is, with significance understood rather than outspoken. The New York Times also praised the production, in case you’re interested. It was beautiful to watch, especially as things went from light to dark in the end.

{Well, I’ll go see it then.}
{Please do, and go away…bothersome old thing!}
{What was that last bit?}

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