It's about love: STCSA's The Seagull

It was about ideas. Big ideas.
What every play should be about.
 – Dorn

In a letter to a friend in 1895, Chekhov famously described the play he was working on as “a comedy – three f., six m., four acts, a landscape (a view of a lake), much conversation about literature, little action, and five tons of love.” While it is a rather simplistic reduction of the play, it is nonetheless quite a succinct summary. If you were to examine the play, peel back its layers and try to get inside each of Chekhov’s characters, you’d find that ultimately it’s a play about love in all its different guises; at the same time, however, in true Chekhovian fashion, it’s not particularly ‘about’ any one thing, except perhaps Life.
The play was, of course, The Seagull, and like the best works of literature, it transcends the centuries and is still as fresh and bold and groundbreaking as the day it was first performed. And, like the classics, every so often a production comes along that cuts to the very heart of what it is about that you cannot help but be struck by its beauty, elegance and rawness. For me, that production was the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s The Seagull, presented as part of the Adelaide Festival.

On a simple traverse stage set between two opposing banks of seats, the characters are exposed to us, their lives and emotions laid bare for all to see; everyone except themselves, perhaps. It’s a beautiful set by Geoff Cobham – at one end stands a set of shelves, packed with crates and boxes, deckchairs, lanterns, and other household paraphernalia. Above the stage, a bank of hanging lights (also by Geoff Cobham) bathes Chekhov’s characters in a warmth they themselves can barely feel, casting them inside a gentle cocoon of compassion and the shared pain of humanity. When coupled with Ailsa Paterson’s gorgeous costumes – gently evoking mid-twentieth century Russia and Chekhov’s own time – it only serves to highlight this tenderness and inner beauty. There is a threadbare quality to them, the hems eversoslightly frayed, the trousers rolled up slightly too much, the boots slightly too worn, the coats slightly too ragged, too thin. There are holes in their clothes, holes made from hard work and years of service; holes, like wounds, that cannot easily be fixed, darned or healed. Holes through which their love and humanity bleeds out and mixes in the crucible created by Geordie Brookman in the State Theatre Company’s Scenic Workshop.
This is Chekhov as he should be performed, Chekhov in his truest, most pure form. Gone are the bells and whistles, the glass boxes and fluorescent lights, the ash falling from the sky and the star-studded cast which failed to meet the giddy expectations raised by Benedict Andrews’ production at Belvoir in 2011. Instead, we get Chekhov’s people, living breathing bursting, hearts full of love, if only they could express it, to each other, let alone themselves. They are on fire, every last one of them, their blood racing, pulsing, full of emotions and life. You can feel them baring their souls, desperately clutching at each other with blind fingers, trying to stop themselves being dragged under by the sheer weight of living. They are incandescent. And this is, in part, as much due to Brookman’s gentle, assured and respectful direction, as it is to Hilary Bell’s crystalline adaptation. Gone are the empty pockets of deadwood that are often found in Chekhov, the wooden rheumatic legs which it often stands on. Here, the language sparkles and shimmers, becomes sharper; its fragility all too apparent, all too visible and audible. For all its emotional weight, it is a comedy, just as in Shakespeare’s, and Bell amplifies this, amplifies the humanity and the poetry. As Kostya realised too late in Act Four, “it’s not about old and new, but about writing from the heart.” Bell’s adaptation has heart: hearts full of love, hearts on fire, hearts worn on sleeves; hearts getting wounded, broken, torn; hearts that are, quite frankly, a mess. Shot through with modern turns of phrase, this production never feels forced or anachronistic; instead, it perhaps becomes closer to what Chekhov wrote, one hundred and nineteen years ago.
In short, the characters feel like people. They feel like us.
Like Shakespeare, Chekhov wrote humans in all their crazy, lovable, ugly, messy ways, and Brookman’s cast are outstanding. Xavier Samuel’s Konstantin (or Kostya) starts out, appropriately, Hamlet-like, exasperated and full of a desire to please his actress-mother, but doesn’t quite realise that in his desire to be new, you still need the old right alongside you, so there is something to be new against. There is an anger to him, but an anger born of frustration, from how he is misunderstood or not understood at all, a pain born from a desire to create create create, the torture of any artist; it’s not angst, just a burning gnawing pain to be something, to stand on his own two feet and say ‘I am an author.’ His play, rendered in Bell’s beautifully jagged poetic couplets, is brought to life by Lucy Fry’s Nina, a girl who dreams of becoming an actress. Fry’s Nina is eager, beautiful in her innocence, but there is a fascination within her for the author Trigorin, for the idea of fame which he embodies, and it hurts to see it, hurts to see her falling falling falling. Not only does it hurt us, but we hurt for Kostya’s sake, too: we know that no matter how sincere or honest, how brazen, his overtures of affection are (like the sacrifice of a seagull), Nina may never truly see him, just as he never truly sees Masha. Nina’s appearance in Act Four, soaking wet hair plastered to her face, is as heartbreaking as it is defiant of everyone who said or thought she wouldn’t make it as an actress. She is in many ways, the flip side to Kostya’s coin – where he can’t go on, she refuses to give up, no matter how wretched or desperate she is, no matter how hard the living becomes.
Renato Musolino’s Trigorin, silent for much of the first act, is by turns warm and angrily frustrated. Like Irina, he knows how to act, how to turn on the charm and the affection, but is he as sincere as he professes, and how much of it is just to get what he needs for his writing? His scene with Nina in Act Two, by the lake, is gutwrenching in his honesty and candidness about the craft of writing and creating; in Bell’s adaptation, it seems that Nina perhaps learns something about craft that Kostya cannot. Their scene at the end of Act Three is also heartbreaking, but for an entirely different reason. I’ve never really understood Trigorin’s relationship with Irina, though perhaps it’s not about love per se, but companionship, and this is where Bell’s adaptation shines its light. As Irina, Rosalba Clemente seemed perhaps too one-dimensional, a little too hysterical or overplayed. Perhaps this is the character – as a once-great actress, she is accustomed to playing larger-than-life to fill the playhouses, but she also cannot stop acting, even in ‘real’ life. In many respects, she is what Kostya cannot stand about the theatre, she stands for everything he is trying to tear down, and while it is perhaps overplayed, a little too unsubtle for the rest of Brookman’s production, it becomes unnoticeable after a while, and Clemente’s performance is soon absolved into the whole.
Around these four main characters, are a host of ‘smaller’ but no less important characters. Matilda Bailey’s Masha, stomping around the stage in her boots, setting up deckchairs as the audience arrives, is wonderfully sardonic and untrusting of emotions and personal affections. Her heart is full to bursting, if only Kostya would see her; her scene with Dorn at the end of Act One is beautiful and honest, just one of Brookman’s many beautifully raw moments. There is a bruised and playful teasing to her, and she comes close to stealing the show on a number of occasions. Her relationship with Matthew Gregan’s Medvedenko is more out of convenience and pity than love, though there are brief glimmers of something deeper in their rare moments of time alone together. As Medvedenko, there is a gentleness to Gregan’s performance and he is an almost perfect foil to Bailey’s Masha. There is a desperate want in him to be loved, but there is the neverending struggle to support those he has to on a schoolteacher’s wage, and it is just another example of Chekhov’s compassion and humanity that he never crumbles but maintains his dignity in the face of hardship. As the production’s composer and musician, Gregan lends the production a subtle warmth, his piano music reminiscent of Rebikov’s haunting piano pieces, while his on-stage ukulele music is as fragile as Bell’s adaptation, and is a beautiful underscore to Brookman’s action. His music in the scene changes becomes almost a haunting, an evocation of a community, a sharedness of experience with which the whole space and production hums.
Terence Crawford’s Dorn is gentle and cheeky, refuses to let himself be caught up in the affections and love play of others. Yet, as in his scene with Masha at the end of Act One, and his scene with Polina in Act Two, there is an understanding and a compassion to him; he feels it all, still, but refuses to act on it. There is perhaps more than a hint of Hugo Weaving’s Vladimir to his Dorn, though it could just be his voice and beard. Paul Blackwell’s Sorin is an endearingly bumbling fellow, and is resigned to experiencing life through the actions and stories of others. While he has few lines compared to other characters, Blackwell creates a person out of what he has, and we love him as much as we love each of the others. Chris Pitman’s straight no-nonsense Shamrayev and Lizzy Falkner’s quietly despairing Polina shine in their humbleness; Shamrayev’s refusal to be moved by Irina’s histrionics is in direct contrast to his fascination with the stars of yesterday and his love of anecdotal stories (his retelling of the ‘Bravo, Silva!’ story is particularly wonderful), while Polina’s quietly pleading scene with Dorn in Act Two is as painful as it is desperately funny. They are as human as they come; as Masha’s parents there is also a despair in them at how their daughter can be so caught up in this emotional maelstrom, even though they barely understand the reality of Masha’s situation.
There is so much to love in this production, just as there is so much love in this production. Each character loves with all their heart, and more often than not they love more than one person. There are so many beautiful moments in Brookman’s production, too – from the evocation of snow in Act Four (reminiscent of Harper’s valium-induced experiences in Belvoir’s Angels in America), to Nina’s entrance in Act Four, soaking wet, to the all-important lake – a simple flickering light revealed behind a sliding workshop door. There is a simple delight in the magic of stagecraft, in the endless expressive possibilities of a simple gesture or action, in the myriad solutions to the staging of Chekhov’s play.
When all is said and done, The Seagull is, ultimately, about love, about people, about the theatre; about Life itself. As Stella Adler wrote, it is about “the catastrophes you have to survive,” about “personal life, home life, the intimate joys and sorrows, the good and bad fortunes. They are a touching, moving group of people. You feel close to them because it is intimate… His people want to live, really want to go on. They are in a trap, but in a way they are heroes; if you can live within the trap, something heroic comes out.” We watch, mesmerised, as the unspoken stories of their lives overlap, as their lives intertwine and get messy, as characters suffer and celebrate, as they cry and laugh and dance and weep and fight and tear each other to pieces; as the minutiae of their lives is peeled back with “scalpel precision” and they are left exposed, bruised; beautiful. In Brookman’s production, this ragtag mob of stragglers, dreamers and hangers-on are stranded time and again against the shore of life, as they are on the shore of Chekhov’s lake. They cling to hopes and dreams, to each other, and are ripped apart, but we see them as they are – “wounded, incandescent. Bursting.”

Theatre playlist: 13. Cello Sonata in C, Op. 65: III. Elegia, Benjamin Britten

Fn. This review is a long-awaited companion to the earlier piece, ‘Suicides and seagulls: Understanding Chekhov’s The Seagull’, published here in March 2013.

1 comment: