Chekhov’s fin-de-siècle drama, The Seagull (1895), a play that explores artistic, social, and familial conflicts, is given fresh life and relevance in this new adaptation by Torben Betts. Under Matthew Dunster’s direction, The Seagull is replete with invention, humour, poignancy, and beauty. Jon Bauser’s ambitious and aesthetically pleasing stage design highlights the unique quality of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre: a space in which the theatregoer is removed from the everyday of metropolitan life and transported to a new world. Servants swim in the small lake at the back of the stage, a pelting rain falls intermittently from the bottom of a vast suspended mirror, whilst flashes of lightning illuminate the trees which stand behind. Artificial effects and real life become almost indistinguishable, as birdsong is often audible. Despite, however, the initial tranquil illusion of the setting, the energy is duly provided by the characters, whose mental and physical weaknesses are exposed and interrogated as the play unfolds. The production transports its audience to a dysfunctional country house in pre-revolutionary Russia, to a troubled world of intense artistic debate, of unrequited love, and personal despair. Yet, as Betts’s adaptation and Bauser’s staging underscore, there remains that ‘poetical love of youth’ and beauty which enticingly threatens to sweep away ‘the sorrows of the world’.
The movement director, Charlotte Broom, should be given credit for the careful choreography, as characters break the striking tableaux vivants that are created by the striking and often symmetrical staging. The immense mirror adds a fascinating additional layer to the drama whilst also providing the audience with greater spectatorial choice: we can choose to watch characters in reflection, modifying our viewing experience and encouraging us to focus more closely on the growing distances between characters. The legendary Japanese director Ninagawa has spoken of his preference for the theatre over film, stating that in the latter, the choice of what you’re looking at is made for you, whilst in the former, every member of the audience has to make their own choice. Whilst I found myself fluctuating between the mirror and the stage itself fairly regularly, part of the intention could well be that a unique and different theatrical experience is created for each person watching the play – we all choose to watch the action through the giant mirror at different times, from different angles, with an infinite number of combinations.
Two aspects of Dunster’s production are particularly striking: the staging and the comedy. Betts’ adaptation may unsettle some, but it can surely be said that he fully exploits the humour that is to be found in Chekhov’s work. Part of the joke seems to be that as the characters on stage persistently lament their absence from the country’s capital city, Moscow, and their isolation in the ‘bastard countryside’, as the cantankerous Peter Sorin (amusingly played by Ian Redford; though all of the cast are excellent) describes it at the beginning of the play – the audience are made aware that we have consciously removed ourselves from our own energetic city centre.
Thus, Dunster and Bauser utilise the Open Air theatre’s unique potential as a pastoral retreat: secluded, beautiful, and mysterious. It is particularly true of this production to say that the theatre becomes a mystical, liminal space, both within and without the city.