Both tuned down and cranked up, Jamie Lloyd’s long-delayed production of Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ does for samovars, scenery and, indeed, seagulls what his recent production of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ did for big noses - ie it scraps them entirely.
Lloyd made his name as a flamboyant alt-West End showman: he used to direct a lot of musicals, and his productions were invariably spattered with vivid sprays of gore. But these last couple have pared things right down: he fills the room with the characters’ feelings and humanity, and cuts away everything else: no props, no period costumes, no fancy choreography.
Soutra Gilmour’s set is an unadorned chipboard box with a row of plastic chairs, the only stage trickery at work a couple of disorientating surprises from lighting designer Jackie Shemesh.
The entire cast spends most of the play on stage, which conveniently means that audience members here for the West End debut of ‘Games or Thrones’ star Emilia Clarke are profoundly unlikely to feel short-changed.
Moreover, the fact all of the cast members are almost constantly sat next to each other – regardless of whether their characters are actually in a given scene – gives the production a wilfully uncomfortable, claustrophobic intimacy. The whole thing takes on the agonising closeness of a long family dinner, or an interminable church service. Or, indeed, being stuck on a stultifying small island together, which is exactly the case with the characters in ‘The Seagull’. They’re thrown together when Indira Varna’s self-absorbed actress Arkadina comes to visit her ageing brother Sorin (Robert Glenister) and troubled son Konstantin (Daniel Monks) in the company of her new lover, hotshot novelist Trigorin (Tom Rhys Harries).
Emilia Clark has a vitality that burns through the self-loathing murk
To say Lloyd’s production is boring would be far from true. But it harnesses the dramatic potential of tedium: you can palpably feel the dullness and the smallness of the island, gnawing away at the senses of its inhabitants, many of whom speak in flat, low voices, some barely more than a mumble.
In this context the use of Anya Reiss’s lairy 2012 adaptation of the play seems less because Lloyd’s production feels in sync with her sweary, yoof-friendly adaptation, but because its spikey dialogue adds a bit of energy and humour to the wilfully hushed delivery.
Nonetheless, the ostensibly subdued performances are all gripping and often startlingly original. Monks’s mumbling Konstantin has a powerfully unsympathetic quality - humourless, arrogant, even misogynistic as he quietly drips poison over much everyone on the island. He’s genuinely chilling, a borderline incel, not just frustrated and insecure. Rhys Harries’s Trigorin is almost as quiet in terms of decibels, but has none of Konstantin’s certainty – he’s shy and hesitant, confused by his success and career rather. No tortured artiste, he’s enormously likeable. And Sophie Wu is wryly amusing as a depressed goth Masha, seething with a genuine hatred for her suitor Medvedenko (Mika Onyx Johnson), a tedious bore who wins our heart as he progressively breaks down over how nastily she treats him.
To be clear, Lloyd’s production hasn’t made everyone horrible, and it’s anchored by a clutch of more traditional performances, notably the reliably excellent Varna’s brassy, emotional Arkadina. But it does create an arena for a series of deep, complicated turns that use a distinctly untheatrical quiet register - made audible by head mics - to explore bold new sides to the characters.
And they create a terrific contract for Clarke. Her Nina is genuinely radiant - a cliche, but her adoring smile and trusting eyes carry a sunny warmth that’s utterly at odds with the depressed men who fall for her. No wonder they’re drawn to her: she has a vitality and simple joyfulness that burns through their self-loathing murk. It’s not a big look-at-me turn: indeed, her Nina seems to suffer less than she usually does usual, with less anguish and breakdown in the second half, more stoicism. But it’s still a terrific performance: there’s a scene that she’s not even technically in that she steals: Konstantin and Arkadina are talking, but it’s impossible to do much more than gawp at Nina’s incandescent smile, beamed directly at Trigorin. And in the second half, a quiet, painful, reflective conversation between her and Monks seems to swallow the room, a quiet storm.
Some people will not enjoy a Chekhov production that basically consists of ten people sitting in a wooden box, talking at a low volume. A sprinkling of punters left at the interval when I saw it, and this was not especially surprising. But if you’re open to a show that makes noise quietly and thinks deeply, this ‘Seagull’ really flies.