In a new version by Christopher Hampton.
The Seagull is one of the great plays about writing. It superbly captures the struggle for new forms, the frustrations and fulfilments of putting words on a page. Chekhov, in his first major play, stages a vital argument about the theatre which still resonates today.
The Royal Court pioneered asking leading playwrights to work on classic plays, as Christopher Hampton famously did with Uncle Vanya. He returns now with a new version of this classic, directed by Ian Rickson, in his last production as Artistic Director of the theatre.
Supported by an anonymous donor and the Laura Pels Foundation
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Dates in January
|Thu 18 Jan 2007||12:00am||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs|
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5 stars 5 stars
Claire Allfree, The Metro, 30th January 2007
CHEKHOV SOARS TO NEW HEIGHTS
It might seem surprising that Ian Rickson should have chosen to end his seven-year tenure overseeing new writing at The Royal Court with a production of Chekhov. But The Seagull is a great play about how to write for the theatre – its young, tormented protagonist Konstantin is determined to overthrow the old and find new forms of expression. Moreover, as Rickson’s superb production makes explicit, its a play that spells out the damage incurred by squandered talent and ruined dreams. So, an apt choice for a director whose reign may not have always produced explosive new plays, but which has always been careful to nurture and consolidate new writers.
Furthermore, this production is practically perfect. Rickson has always been a great director – clean lucid, pure – and his approach is perfectly suited to Chekhov, who demands subtlety and clarity. He’s also assembled a crack cast. Kristin Scott Thomas is almost too good as the vain, imperial aging actress Arkadina – an ice queen bitch who conveys volumes with a mere flick of her eyebrow, yet who also reveals in a flicker the extent to which Arkadina’s impeccable theatrical performances are rooted in insecurity about being loved and getting old.
The cruelty of unrequited love and fading youth are the other two great themes here, and Rickson emphasises throughout the extent to which the narcissism and myopia of people seemingly paralysed by their circumstances become such a strong force for destruction and waste. Nowhere is that more evident than in the two youngest characters. Carey Mulligan is a fresh, passionate Nina, full of blooming optimism and ambition, and her last, almost too painful, exchange with Mackenzie Crooks superlative earnest, cadaverous Konstantin – played here as a man wise beyond his years – is the productions consummate moment.
Rickson also packs in the comedy. Katherine Parkinson is hilarious as the suicidal Masha. When Arkadinas ailing brother Sorin has a dizzy turn he topples headlong on to a pile of suitcases.
The only character not quite right is Chiwetel Eijofor’s Trigorin. He fails to make the weakness at the heart of Arkadinas toyboy interesting: its unclear why he should succumb the way he does to Arkadina and so casually destroy Nina. But this is still a beautifully judged piece of theatre, full of tremulous light, shade and depth.
5 stars 5 stars
Nicholas De Jongh, Evening Standard, 26th January 2007
BEAUTIFUL, SOARING SEAGULL IS A FIVE-STAR SWANSONG
Ian Rickson strikes a cheeky note by signing off his career as artistic director of this home for new writing with that familiar classic Chekhov’s The Seagull – but in a historic production.
The play’s two young sexual obsessives, Mackenzie Crook’s suicidal writer Konstantin and Carey Mulligan’s doomed, would-be actress Nina, make their characters’ despair overwhelming.
It felt, while I watched with tell-tale moist eyes, that I was seeing this tragi-comedy for the first time. And Christopher Hampton’s new version, with its stock of freshminted turns of phrase, enhances the sense of watching something new.
Rickson organises a series of shocks for traditional Chekhov lovers.
First he gives the play strong socialpolitical pointing. He strips away The Seagull’s luxurious and romantic accessories. No lake, gardens, lawns or flower-beds establish a seductive country-estate mood.
Hildegard Bechtler’s handsome design is something different. Inside, the dining room with peeling, grey walls and sparse furniture, and outside, a forlorn pair of birch trees and a grey back wall, remind us that Sorin’s estate and the life of the landed gentry is fading out in bleak poverty.
A little laughter is raised, but mainly of the ironic, rueful sort.
Unrequited love fixes almost everyone in a vice of hopeless longing: Katherine Parkinson’s Masha and Denise Black as her jealous mother both pining for unavailable men, Art Malik’s semi-detached Dr Dorn, Pearce Quigley’s unwanted husband Medvedenko all powerfully increase the tragi-comic mood. Only Peter Wight’s histrionic Sorin sounds out of place.
Kristin Scott Thomas’s glacial Arkadina, the actress with a secondrate touring career well behind her and that reluctant lover of hers, Trigorin, to whom Chiwetel Ejiofor tenatively lends the air of an older toy-boy novelist rather than the usual, middle-aged literary gentleman, remain shadowy catalysts. They yield the central focus to Nina and Konstantin.
Ejiofor betrays not a flicker of sexual desire when he makes his moves upon Mulligan’s smitten Nina. A subdued Scott Thomas, discreetly emanating superior sex-appeal, floats around in 19th-century chic costumes, oozing froideur and flaunting her ego.
When she vainly tries to surrender to temperament or reclaim Trigorin she looks and sound squawkily unconvincing. Even when rowing with Konstantin she betrays the aloof grandeur of minor royalty opening a provincial railway station rather than a mother up against a jealous son.
This relentlessly one-noted performance ignores the fact that Arakadina has a compassionate side as well as selfish one and it is on her maternal aspect that Konstantin depends. Yet oddly Scott Thomas’s limitations serve only to make Crook’s Konstantin appear more pathetically isolated and his transition from TV comedian to serious actor more amazing.
What a blaze of desperate intensity he brings to his hopeless wooing of Mulligan’s ardent, vulnerable Nina. Eyes fixed in a distant stare, shimmering with passion, the desolate, bearded Konstantin promises early on to kill himself and the threat for once sounds like an assured prophecy.
I have never seen the last Nina-Konstantin encounter better done. Mulligan piles on the pathos as an eerily mature, sexually obsessed Nina.
She speaks the lines from Konstantin’s modernist play while he blocks his ears to the sound. This enthralling Seagull becomes, in Rickson’s beautiful swan-song production, a drama of destruction.
It demonstrates how two narcissistic artist/lovers, teeming with self-interest wreck the lives of their younger counter-parts.
5 stars 5 stars
Christopher Hart, The Sunday Times, January 28th 2007
A BIRD THAT’S ON SONG
On first acquaintance, the somnambulistic pace and gravity are not particularly inviting. The play-within-a-play in Act I eschews the farcical possibilities of Konstantins experimental theatre and offers only muted, uncertain, well-spaced laughs, when usually the scenes rich comedy accentuates the encompassing bleakness of Chekhov’s vision. Then a line of Dorn’s leaps out as if the governing aesthetic: Something can only be beautiful if its serious. The solemnity and respectfulness of Christopher Hamptons new version, and the careful pace of Ian Rickson’s direction, gather dignity and depth as they progress. This is a Seagull that grows on you. And grows. And grows.
A Comedy in Four Acts, Chekhov impishly subtitled it, but as a comedy about frustration, hopeless yearning, failure and, on top of all that, the brevity of life, it reminds you of the Woody Allen joke about two old ladies in a restaurant: This food’s awful. Yes, and such small portions.
The acting is, without exception, outstanding. Kristin Scott Thomas makes a quite ghastly Arkadina, which I mean as the highest compliment: a monster mother, the surface all icy, smiling egomania and brittle self-regard, but with desperation and sorrow coursing just beneath the porcelain skin. That harrowing, mutually manipulative-destructive scene between mother and son, when she begins by tending his head wound and ends by screaming Parasite! and, Mediocrity! at him, reaches heights of intensity painful to watch. But how we feel for her as, down on her knees, she pleads with Trigorin: You’re the last page of my life! Mackenzie Crook is inspired casting as Konstantin, with his sunken cheeks, staring eyes and little Russki chin beard. Crook says he’s so new to theatre, he’d never been in the Royal Court before, but he looks comfortable there to me: at ease with the 19th-century dialogue and, unlike poor Nina, the failed actress, knowing exactly what to do with his arms. Carey Mulligan’s Nina is, I hasten to add, excellent. She seems to radiate a visible innocence.
Katherine Parkinson judges Masha just right, loopy but not too loopy, with a weird, quavery voice, continually knocking back vodka shots and taking snuff in a way that suggests a more ruinous powder addiction. Chiwetel Ejiofor has a tremendous presence as Trigorin, articulate and vigorous. His speech on Being a Writer – not the most promising of subjects, you might think – is riveting. Peter Wight is a portly, despairing Sorin, and Pearce Quigley makes a bumbling, good-natured Medvedenko, cursed by the stubborn fact that, as Konstantin says, women never forgive failure. Art Malik is a powerfully charismatic Dorn, sweeping off his hat and standing with legs apart, exuding a rare confidence among these losers. How neurotic everyone is! he observes, putting it mildly.
Together, they form a poignant, absurd group of nonentities: the used-to-be-famous, the failed and the destined-to-fail, with ambitions far outstripping their talent, all seemingly dedicated to enacting GK Chestertons caustic observation: The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs. But they’re never mere targets of our smug mockery, least of all in this grave, sonorous, atmospheric production, so sensitive to the way Chekhov can switch from melancholy to comedy and back again in just three lines. In fact, here, the same line can be ludicrous and deeply moving. Reprised from Konstantin’s daft play, Nina’s concluding lines are full of pathos: “The cranes no longer wake whooping in the meadow, and in the lime groves the May beetles are silent.”
Other moments are strikingly modern, such as Arkadina’s defence of playing lotto: “It’s a boring game, but its not so bad once you get used to it.” We’re not far off the exchange in Waiting for Godot here: “That passed the time. It would have passed in any case.”
This is not the most laugh-out-loud version, but by the end, you’ll realise you’ve watched one of the great productions of this masterpiece – such a deeply thoughtful and sympathetic version, you can almost sense Chekhov’s dark, kindly eyes watching over it, and hear his tubercular little cough.