nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 1, 2008
[Note: For a synopsis of The Seagull, check out this Wikipedia article (it contains spoilers!)]
Every translation of The Seagull I've ever read, and every production of it I've ever seen, begins with the schoolteacher Medvedenko following Masha, the woman he loves, onto the stage and asking her (so famously) why she always wears black.
But not this one. Christopher Hampton's new version of Chekhov's great play "improves" on the original by showing us in its first moments Konstantin Treplev making some final preparations for the play he's about to put on for his guests. He carelessly tosses aside a piece of paper...which Masha pounces on when she finally appears with Medvedenko in tow. The teacher starts to ask his question, but Masha is entranced with Konstantin's missive and won't listen to Medvedenko: she thrusts her arm out, making him pause in mid-thought, while she finishes reading and savoring Konstantin's cast-off writing. When she's done, she allows Medvedenko to complete his question (and she answers, as expected, that she wears black because she's in mourning for her life; she's unhappy).
She may as well be in mourning for the spirit of Chekhov; for the subtlety of characterization that makes The Seagull so enduring has already been breached, and this production will never recover it. We will learn, as the play progresses, what the source of Masha's unhappiness is. Do we need to have it pummeled into our heads in the first two minutes of the piece?
The delicate relationships that Chekhov sketched out in his Seagull are replaced here with reductive clunky ones; a play that always seemed to me to be about aloneness and regret, missed connections and interdependency, is transformed into a harsh melodrama of opportunism and ego. Some of this is Hampton's doing; much of it is director Ian Rickson's responsibility. He's certainly (mis)cast this Seagull with as unlikable an ensemble as possible. Kristin Scott Thomas's one-note Arkadina, wildly gesticulating and over-emphasizing syllables with massive affectation, is a monstrous woman who seems incapable of loving or caring about anyone besides herself. Carey Mulligan's Nina is beautiful, but quickly devolves into Eve Harrington to Arkadina's Margo Channing, measuring every word in her scene with Arkadina's lover Trigorin so that she seems like nothing more than a huntress baiting a trap for her prey.
Peter Sarsgaard's Trigorin, on the other hand, is so ineffectual that he's hardly even there; it's the weakest performance in a badly-performed production. He reminded me of a cross between Dom DeLuise and John Malkovich.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie Crook's Konstantin seems passionless from the get-go. He says he loves Nina and he says he wants to make a new kind of theatre, but I found him unconvincing on both points. At the end of the play, when he makes his last important decision, he feels entirely indecisive, tearing up something he's written so slowly that it appears that he's destroying his work letter by letter.
There are some effective characterizations among the supporting cast, notably Ann Dowd's genuinely warm Polina and Peter Wight's melancholy Sorin; but Zoe Kazan's petulant goth-girl take on Masha is disastrous, especially given the excellent work this young actress has done elsewhere recently. Rickson seems determined to show us the malevolent stinginess in each personality on stage. At the same time, he's managed to stretch out the play in a way that often feels interminable—there are lots of pregnant pauses that go on so long that you start to wonder if the cast is paid by the hour; even the transitions between acts are unnecessarily fussy and slow-moving.
One of the effects of this languor is that it give us time to ponder details that don't make sense. Why do all these Russian people have different kinds of British accents (including those played by American actors)? Why does Yakov the handyman play on a gong during Konstantin's play? Why is Arkadina seated by herself during the play, instead of next to Trigorin? Why is the paint on the walls of the estate house peeling?
Like Hampton's revisionist beginning, most of this just seems arbitrary—a way to grab attention for its own sake. Instead of showing us something new in Chekhov's work, this production diminishes a masterpiece. It is, in every sense, a criminal squandering of resources.