This electric, blackly funny adaptation of ‘The Seagull’ brings out both the venom and the anguish of hopeless longing in Chekhov’s 1895 original. Torben Betts’ often terse, expletive-filled update will probably have Chekhov purists pining for their samovars, yet while certain subtleties are cast aside, this is an intelligently provocative production, which at moments even seems to point towards the Russian Revolution.
Jon Bausor’s elegant design cleverly seduces the eye with a large tilted mirror above the turf-covered stage that gives a subtly different perspective – a seagull’s eye view? – on what is going on immediately front of the audience. Different geometric patterns unfurl in front of our eyes – there’s a glorious moment when two white parasols are put up that’s a bit Busby Berkeley minus the chorus-girls. Yet as well as the delightful aesthetic dimensions, the new angle the mirror brings also shows what people are trying to hide from each other. So, for instance, for the famous play-within-a-play, with its set-within-a-set, it is possible to see both the action in front and the subversive scurrying behind the backdrop erected for Konstantin’s production of his new work.
Matthew Dunster’s production opens with a loud subsonic rumble, and Lisa Diveney’s nervy crow-like Masha angrily rejecting the lovesick schoolteacher Colin Hoult’s Medviedenko, ‘You ask me to marry you every bloody day.’ Though the costume is nineteenth century, both the edgy delivery of dialogue and the movement instantly feels very twenty-first century – there are even recorded internal monologues. By the time Matthew Tennyson’s soulful Konstantin exclaims of Janie Dee’s exquisitely prima-donna-ish mother, Irina Arkadina, ‘She’s as tight as a camel’s arse in a sandstorm’ it doesn’t seem remotely out of place. Yet though the laughs come easily, they are not cheap – the dialogue deliberately echoes the more hollow aspects of celebrity-obsessed self-scrutinizing existence today, and in so doing binds us more closely to the plight of Chekhov’s characters.
The members of the cast work superbly together. Dee’s Arkadina (who outrageously proves her youthful suppleness at one point by throwing a leg up and resting it on a servant’s head) exudes a bitchy glamour that thinly conceals her desperation to be worshipped. Sabrina Bartlett’s Nina swings between confident beauty and youthful insecurity, Alex Robertson’s wonderfully self-absorbed Trigorin floats callously between one woman and another, and Diveney’s Masha shows what it’s like to be devoured from inside by her hopeless passion. In an interesting subtext, the servants, Tom Greaves’ Yakov and Tara D’Arquian’s Natasha, are shown to be more sexually liberated than their supposed superiors, and laughingly contemptuous of their pretensions. In their attitude we glimpse the forces that would rip Russia apart just a couple of decades later, bringing to an end both the dreams and gilded frustrations of its feckless land-owning class.