Chekhov’s marvellous play The Seagull is performing at The Lowry as a superbly casted and insightfully updated rendition, and it retains its coldness with verve.
The scene opens in the woods of an unknown island where a temperamental young man, Konstantin, attempts to impress his mother, Arkadina, a famous actress, and win the love of another young actress, Nina. Konstantin is a playwright, who battles in artistic as well as emotional turmoil against his mother and her lover, Trigorin, a very successful and very boring writer. In multiple sub-plots, family and friends also convene on the island for a rather unrelaxing holiday.
At the start of the performance Konstantin decides to put on a play (which is suitably pretentious and bizarre), and the rest of the cast sit on stage with their backs to the audience, watching and sniggering. The ‘play within play’ is wittily extended not only to the realms of Anya Reiss’s new adaptation but to Chekhov’s original, for example when Konstantin ironically labels traditional theatre as ‘boring’. The references to Hamlet provide an interesting parallel, and in The Seagull the ‘play within play’ is also used in attempt to reveal something too important and upsetting for words, and to gain a reaction. Konstantin wants to prove himself to his mother who fails to notice his potential; she’s too wrapped up in her own celebrity life. The conflict between the two writers and the two actresses is complex and brings to light the perhaps dated idea of the femme fatale ‘acting’ woman, and the Romantic writer – the typically male tortured soul.
This was shrewdly updated to a very real setting with perceptive interpretations of the characters: real, 21st century folk with age old emotions. Special mention must go to Konstantin (Ben Allen) who’s strained relationship with his mother (Susie Trayling) provides some absolutely brilliant and very genuine dialogue. Each character is well-casted and realistic, although perhaps some of the characters do not reach their full potential, for example it was unclear what purpose Dorn and Polina were meant to play. This is unfortunately where the performance falls flat; certain characters could have been made more interesting.
However this was forgiven by the strength of the relationship between Nina (Sophie Robinson) and the successful writer Trigorin (Graeme Hawley): there is a fantastically surreal scene where he reveals his hatred of being a good writer. Everything he perceives he must record; compulsively, unemotionally, mechanically…until he flirtatiously compares Nina to a seagull, the bad omen of the play.
The tension towards the end of the performance is dynamic, and parts of the script are very amusing. The set encourages a feeling of coldness and tension between the characters – three stark trees in the first half of the performance, replaced by a lifeless impersonal sitting room in the second.
This new adaptation of The Seagull is psychologically perceptive and it is interesting to see how well Chekhov translates into today.