The Seagull - Chekhov, adapted by Torben Betts
Richmond Shakespeare Society
21st - 30th April 2017
Purists and critics will quibble, as they are wont to do, with the much acclaimed, updated adaptation of The Seagull by Torben Betts which was produced at the Mary Wallace Theatre at the end of April. In the original version, the play, although designated as a ‘comedy’ by Chekhov, has a considerable subtext about the meaning of life and through his characters’ personalities and interactions demonstrates the dilemmas of being an artist and particularly an artist in love. Despite being a failure on its first performance in 1898 the play was subsequently produced and promoted by Stanislavski , the great Russian theatre director, and has been hailed as ‘one of the greatest new developments in world drama’ – a pioneer of the new realism which was gradually gaining ground in European theatre.
The production at the Mary Wallace Theatre, directed by Susan Conte, was pacey and funny, although in an attempt to keep the action moving, there was a tendency by some of the younger actors in the first act to rush their lines. There are many ensemble scenes and we were presented with some great groupings especially in the family gatherings and the cast tableau at the final curtain. The positioning of the ‘stage’ in the first act gave Nina ample space in which to perform. However the entrances and exits through the auditorium tended to break the atmosphere on stage and some might have had more impact if from the wings.
The action takes place in the late 19th century on the country estate by a lake in Russia belonging to Peter Sorin, the elderly and ailing brother of a famous actress, Irina. Unfortunately the set gave little impression of the much praised beauty of the site and the representation of the interior in Act 3 with flimsy white poles, a mimed door and minimal furniture did little to set the time and place.
Sounds effects were also virtually non- existent with little hint of the storm and incessant rain which was alleged to be raging outside in Act 4, although there were some storm clouds over the lake. Costumes set the piece firmly in the 1890s. The men were stylishly clad but, whilst the majority of the women’s clothes were utilitarian and quite suitable, Irina’s dresses were lacking in style for such a flamboyant character, even on holiday in the country, and did little to differentiate her status from the rest of the cast.
The Seagull depicts two visits by Irina with her lover Boris Trigorin, a famous playwright, to the estate, where her son, himself a frustrated writer, currently lives, with his uncle. Dormant ambitions, passions and anxieties in this small provincial community are awakened by these visitors from a very different world.
Magdalena Jablonska, playing Nina, the eponymous Seagull, is a newcomer to RSS. This young actress showed some insights into this complex character. Understandably she was most successful in the first acts, when naively expressing her hopes for an acting career, demonstrating her skill in amateur theatricals and subsequently her growing infatuation with Boris Trigorin. In the final act the depths of her despair and madness at losing her child, her career and her lover were not fully captured and the constant circling around Konstantin when delivering her last incoherent speech led to loss of its symbolism and impact. That said, Magdalena shows much promise and we will follow her progress with interest.
Konstantin, in love with Nina, is the only son of Irina, a famous actress. Liam Hurley succeeded in capturing the frustrations and bitterness which he felt about his lack of success both in his writing and in his relationships with both his mother and Nina. This was a high energy and sincere performance, veering between despair and anger but perhaps lacking in the moments of quiet reflection needed for a fully rounded and explicable character. Nevertheless this was an impressive debut with RSS – another young actor to watch!
As Irina, Dorothy Duffy didn’t quite fulfil ones ideas of a famous 19th century actress accustomed to starring in grand melodramatic plays in the old Russian tradition. Irina is stubborn, vain, stingy and demanding but in this performance Dorothy wasn’t quite as insensitive or overbearing as the part demands. However, her scene with Konstantin after his attempted suicide did depict briefly another, more tender, side to her character. Her pleading and flattery of her lover Boris when he threatened to leave vividly portrayed the insecurities of an ageing woman in danger of losing her looks.
Boris Trigorin was played by Darren Milroy, a newcomer to RSS. Boris is often spoken of as the greatest of Chekhov’s male creations, depicted as revered writer and member of the elite Russian intelligentsia. Unfortunately in this version he was portrayed as a mildly egoistical fool, at the mercy of his amorous and literary obsessions but with no hint of the intelligent, decadent and manipulative character lying beneath the façade. This characterisation, whilst provoking much laughter in the audience, detracted from the bleak mood and outcome of the play.
The four main protagonists are supported by an interesting collection of characters whose lives provide a back story to the main action. Outstanding amongst these was Rachel Burnham, as Masha, the disillusioned and depressive daughter of the estate manager. Hard – drinking and snuff taking, her body language emphasised her unhappiness and unrequited passion for Konstantin and the lack of love received from her father. The scene with Eugene, (James Lloyd Pegg) a local doctor, whom it was hinted may be her true father, was sincerely and movingly played by both actors.
Eugene acts as a commentator, confidant and witness to the events. His ambivalent position in relation to the household, and his somewhat detached relationship with Paulina (Susan Reoch), was very believable. Paulina’s obvious discontent with her life with Ilia (Jim Trimmer, excellent as the ruthless estate manager) contributed to a credible portrait of a woman who fervently desires nothing more than her daughter’s (and her own) happiness.
As Simon , Masha’s long time suitor and poor local schoolmaster whom she finally marries to escape from her infatuation and the boredom of life on the estate, Peter Easterbrook gave a moving portrayal of a man paralysed by his insecurities , financial difficulties and dejected by his situation both before and after his marriage.
John Mortley as Peter, a government official who has retired to the country, appeared very much at ease as the ailing, older brother of Irina. With excellent physical and verbal projection, he ruefully reviewed his own unfulfilled life and nevertheless was a wise and supportive confidant to all. John gave a lovely, believable portrayal of an older man with deteriorating health and dreams of what might have been.
Stanislavski is often quoted as saying There is no such thing as a small role, only small actors. James MacDonald and Georganna Simpson were on stage for much of the performance as servants and mainly silent observers of the household. Their body language indicated their involvement in the lives of their masters, particularly from Georganna as the maid whose strong suppressed feelings for Konstantin were vividly unleashed by her scream of anguish at the end of the play.
Torben Betts’ contemporary script emphasises the comedic, even farcical, elements of the convoluted and ultimately tragic relationships of the main protagonists to such an extent that some of the poetry, symbolism and self-reflective moments in the original are lost, as is the exploration of ideas both about theatre and life.
It is the job of actors to present the play as it is written, anachronisms and all, and the comic elements of this version were well played by an ensemble cast of diverse characters, all of whom ‘loved too well but not wisely’! ‘Voice overs’ did demonstrate some characters inner thoughts, but in accentuating the comedy of these complex lives, much of the tragedy, particularly in Nina and Konstantin’s relationship, was lost and the symbolism of the Seagull made a lesser impact.