nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 15, 2007
I've seen The Seagull any number of times, in any number of settings—from college productions to the star-studded Shakespeare in the Park production of a few years ago—but I've never heard The Seagull—its thematic threads of dreams deferred and destroyed, of unrequited love and crushed souls; its gentle humor—as clearly as in the Royal Shakespeare Company's current production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, directed with elegant simplicity by Trevor Nunn. There's nothing flashy about this Seagull (unless you count the appearance of Sir Ian McKellen in certain performances, not including the one I saw), no high directorial concept shaping our view—just a straightforward approach that keeps the focus on Chekhov. Nunn and a solid ensemble get more laughs out of Chekhov than usual, but without unwarranted broadness, and without sacrificing the melancholy or pathos, especially in the later parts of the play.
Part of the clarity comes from the translation, which was constructed from a literal translation in rehearsal by Nunn and the actors—creating language that's flexible and natural, without being jarringly modern.
One thing that struck me about The Seagull with particular force this time is how many of the story's important developments take place offstage, in the two-year gap between the third and fourth acts—and how much of the work of the actors here is conveying the emotional colorations of their characters, rather than telling a straightforward story. The first three acts of the play occur over a single summer in the Russian countryside, and are filled with longing, aspiration, and regret: Konstantin aspires to an artistic greatness that will outstrip his mother Arkadina's popular success, and longs for the love of Nina. Nina, an aspiring actress, longs for fame, fortune, and the attentions of the already-famous writer Trigorin. Masha longs for Konstantin; the hapless teacher Medvedenko longs in turn for Masha—and a better-paying job. Trigorin, the lover of Arkadina, also develops an obsession with Nina, feeling that he's missed out on experiencing genuine emotion due to his compulsions to observe, write, and make a name for himself. Arkadina tries desperately to hold on to her success and her centrality in the lives of the others; her brother, Sorin, looks back at his life and longs for it to have been different. Even Polina, the wife of the estate manager, longs for her affection for the local doctor, Dorn, to be reciprocated fully.
But in the two years between Acts 3 and 4, Masha and Medvedenko marry and have a child; Nina runs away from home to become an actress, becomes Trigorin's lover, and has an illegitimate child with him, which dies; Konstantin becomes a published writer. And yet when they meet again, all of these developments come out as asides, in gossip or chit-chat. All the characters are animated by the same constellation of passions, dreams, and regrets as before; only Nina seems genuinely changed by her experiences, perhaps because it is only Nina who has escaped—albeit somewhat tragically—from the emotional entanglements of the play.
It's disappointing, then, that Romola Garai's Nina is the weak link in Nunn's generally strong ensemble of actors. Garai's performance felt dishonest to me—like she was trying to infuse Nina with the slightly out-of-control emotions of an adolescent, but instead was simply not in control of her performance. Richard Goulding's Konstantin, too, lapses occasionally into melodrama—but since his performance is more grounded, it seems more like Konstantin, not Goulding, overemoting.
And most of the performances are wonderful: William Gaunt as Sorin gets some of the play's biggest laughs with his sly timing, but also sparks some of its most wistful moments with his rueful regret. Monica Dolan as Masha both suffers from and gains strength from her own sorrow, her own compromises. Gerald Kyd's Trigorin is seductive and charming, yet clearly capable of stunning cruelty. On the other hand, I found Melanie Jessop (Frances Barber's understudy, who I saw at this performance) a little flippant as Arkadina; I saw her jealousy and her need for control, but never the more complex emotions underlying them.
Sometimes the greatest craft is in knowing when to exercise restraint, and this production of The Seagull succeeds most when it's simplest—strong actors and director knowing enough to not impose on Chekhov, to let the play's words and themes come alive.