The Seagull: Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Extremely minimalist Chekhov in a plywood box with plastic chairs. Super famous actors portray miserable Russians and…it’s engrossing.

Fair play to Daniel Monks (Konstantin) who spends about 30 minutes before the start of the play and a big part of the interval lying inertly on the stage. At the beginning Emilia Clarke (Nina) appears and sits on a chair, legs drawn up under her chin, staring in to space, lost in her thoughts. Slowly she is joined by all the other characters — who clamber up on to the stage and form a line, seated in plastic chairs away from her. She sits next to Konstantin facing outwards. The chairs are used for much of the dialogue — in lines, pairs and circles — even some musical chairs as cast members switch chairs! These are the only props.

I didn’t know the story beforehand — so having read up now, we’re in a Russian country estate, by a lake, where Konstantin’s first play has been produced. It hasn’t gone well and his friends and family are harsh critics. His mother, Arkadina, an actress (and Indira Varma!) is damning, of his talent and really of him. Bizarrely and uncomfortably for her son, she has her famous novelist lover in tow — Trigorin (Tom Rhys Harries) — who appears to be the same age as her son and much more successful. Konstantin wants to be in a relationship with Nina, who more and more is starstruck…by Trigorin and wants to run away to be an actress herself. Konstantin feels his lack of success in his life and probably doesn’t help himself with his excesses — such as shooting a seagull to show his love for Nina; both unappreciated gifts.

Seeing another unwelcome gift, Arkadina neglects her son and will do nothing to help him nor give him anything to do, apart from hide him away in a sleepy rural hamlet by a lake. Her self-defense in doing this was quite something when challenged.

Much of this play is about yearning and unrequited love. Masha (Sophie Wu) (a Goth and almost comically monotone, though I don’t think she’s meant to be so humourous) loves Konstantin, who doesn’t care for her at all and is relentlessly pursued by a dull, lovelorn Medvedenko (Mika Onyx Johnson), who she doesn’t care for at all but eventually agrees to marry, lovelessly. Charmingly Sorin (Robert Glenister) as Arkadina’s brother, who is harbouring his own secrets and seeks to check his sister’s ongoing carelessness with her son.

Another theme is who stays and who goes, who is left behind in this seemingly hopeless lake-land rural community. Nina is pitied for being overcontrolled by her doctor father, acting girlishly although she is an adult woman. Indira Varma is not only charismatic but brings poignant moments — such as when she begs her much younger lover not to leave her, that he is hers, as she seeks he is about to be unfaithful. As soon as characters arrive, they want to leave again — restlessly longing for…something or someone else.

There’s also a strange personality clash going on with Jason Barnett’s Shamrayev and Arkadina — he abuses her, disrespects her and won’t give her the vehicles she requests when needed or the travel she wants and yet somehow they are sparring partners. He tragically misses the point — which is the potential of a loving wife and family infront of him.

Trigorin had the potential to be a dull character — but his burgeoning romance between himself and Nina, being prompted into speaking through her admiration of his works, and his love of the fishing potential of the area into full blown fangirling with benefits was tenderly done. Their conversation was beautifully portrayed — speaking over and then at a distance, and then moving their chairs closer and closer together. Standing, then a kiss. Triumphantly Nina runs away to join Trigorin in a new and hopeful life in the city.

Be prepared for shocks. Konstantin shoots himself — shown by bright blinding light and a sharp banging sound. This was so unexpected after all the measured talking that I jumped and many members of the audience screamed and gasped. It felt really real — that we were under attack.

The stage goes dark, plunging us the audience into darkness and there I felt it would end — but this was only the interval and there was more. Everyone, apart from Nina has returned. Konstantin has survived his suicide and is a successful playwright (or atleast his mother is playing up his success for his health’s sake, anxiously monitoring his piano playing as certain tunes indicate depression and the potential for another attempt). Trigorin is a little more selfish, self-centred here — a writer who can’t stop being a writer seeing everything and everyone as an idea to be used and reworked, and still distracted by the idea of fishing by the lake forever.

Nina creeps in secretly and has a tender reconciliation with Konstantin — miserably her relationship with Trigorin has failed, their baby died and she is being more trafficked than acting. Her wide eyed hopeful dreams turned into toughness — her honesty is really heart wrenching here. But this isn’t the grand romantic reconciliation we (including Konstantin) are hoping for — as they listen to each other and embrace, she tells him — that despite it all — she loves Trigorin even more than before! Which leads to even more tragedy as Nina stunned finds Konstantin’s dead body and everyone else reacts and leaves slowly, stunned. Although they all take a long time in leaving and deciding to leave, apart from those who can’t leave and must stay behind. Even Masha cruelly finds ways of distancing herself from her husband and baby by not being with them when she could, and her lovelorn husband mourns her absence, her withdrawal, feeling her lack of love.

The simplicity of the staging really drew you in to the drama, the characters and made events all the more poignant. The second half was unexpected as the first half leads you to really want Nina and Trigorin to work out; the second half is more real as characters deal with their disillusionment and betrayal. Indira Varma was magnificent, but this was Daniel Monks’ play as he really made us care for his character’s suffering, vulnerability and frailty. I was left feeling cheated because I really wanted Trigorin and Nina to work out, to have a romance — but this is Chekhov!

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Susan Tailby

Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....