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May 16, 2007

Anton and Agoraphobia: Anton Chekhov's The Seagull - RSC at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Anton Chekhov's The Seagull
directed by Trevor Nunn
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 17th April - 23rd June 2007

I'm guessing, though based on considerable anecdotal evidence, that Chekhov is the second most produced playwright in the world and also the second most highly esteemed. He has certainly aged better than his Anglophone contemporaries, Shaw and Galsworthy and is ahead by a less clear margin of Ibsen. Even Oscar Wilde lives on theatrically mainly through a single play. Purely subjectively - and therefore less speculatively - he certainly occupies second place in my own theatrical memories. Any half-decent production of Chekhov's rather limited opus seems to create a powerful atmosphere.

Yet he is in many ways the opposite of Shakespeare whose world is infinitely varied and extensive. With Chekhov we are always in the strangely narrow vastness of nineteenth century Russia, modernising and liberalising, but not quite. We are always at the meeting point of the aristocracy and the intelligentsia and always somehow both claustrophobic and agoraphobic. Whereas half the fun of Shakespeare, particularly the comedies, is that you can experiment with different contexts, which suggest different nuances and emphases, the Chekhov context is rarely changed (like verismo opera), though Brian Friel has adapted some Chekhov - and more Turgenev - to an Anglo-Irish milieu.

The Seagull, you may or may not recall, is set on a country estate adjoining a lake about a day's journey from Moscow. The owner of the estate is Sorin, a fairly pathetic old buffer who is also a retired state official. His sister, Arkadina, is a well known actress who brings in tow one Trigorin, a highly regarded young author. Arkadina's son, Konstantin, whose age - he is in his mid-twenties - is an embarrassment to Arkadina, is also resident on the estate. Nina, the daughter of a nearby estate owner, is a frequent visitor and she has aspirations to be an actress.

The other principal characters are the estate steward, his wife and daughter, the local doctor and the teacher. The principal event in the two years which elapse between the beginning of the play and the end concern Nina: she goes to Moscow to become an actress, is disowned by her parents, has an affair with Trigorin and gives birth to a child which dies. She has some success as an actress, but returns secretly to the estate and confides, to Konstantin, that she will always love Trigorin whereupon he shoots himself as the rest of the characters are playing Lotto. The seagull itself is a bird which is shot by Konstantin and later stuffed, though it symbolises what Trigorin does to Nina - either crudely or with self-referential irony, as you prefer.

Chekhov's unmysterious talent is that his dialogue is intelligent and witty and often unexpected. I particularly enjoyed Trigorin's speech bemoaning his fate as a writer which turns the world into a mere repository of ideas and descriptive phrases, a work resource rather than a place to live. But his mysterious and more particularly Chekhovian talent is his ability to turn the stage into the centre of a much larger world of the imagination so that you know that the lake or the cherry orchard or the railway station which disgorges the passengers from Moscow is there just as certainly as you know that the characters on stage are there. This is mainly done by dialogue, by walks recounted and horizons indicated, but a good Chekhov set should always hint at the world beyond. In this case we have six implausibly tall beriozka trunks and an impression of lake and forest. But it seems to work every time; I am almost inclined to want to see a bad production of a Chekhov play which fails at this kind of suggestion, just out of curiosity.

This is the same cast which I previously saw in Lear though without Sir Ian McKellen on this occasion as it was an evening on which William Gaunt played Sorin. Melanie Jessop substituted for the injured Frances Barber in the part of Arkadina as she also did as Goneril. The excellent Jonathan Hyde, Kent in Lear, plays Dr Dorn. I previously described this cast as competent and I hold to my judgement. The biggest promotion is Gerald Kyd, a mere spear character in Lear, as Trigorin. The part requires him to seem brilliantly intelligent and also sexy enough to have a devastating impact on most of the women in the story. My brief survey suggested that, despite a superficial resemblance to the late George Best, he was not so sexy; indeed one respondent damned him with the very faint praise that he was wearing nice trousers.

Chekhov always offers us a contrast between context and dialogue. There is the vast Russian landscape somehow there around us. To be sure, as the programme notes never fail to tell us, it is a Russia in "transition" and you cannot fail to reflect that some of the younger peasants in boots and smocks who move the furniture are going to end up on a collective farm. But it is also an ancient and unchanging place with its farms and forests and ponds. Yet the dialogue is astonishingly contemporary to us: the birch woods are full of wannabes, fancying themselves as writers and actors, yearning for fame, talking endlessly about art and relationships. I seem to be on the way to suggesting that Chekhov is a sort of Bloomsbury-meets-Big-Brother, so I'll stop that line of inquiry, but I must insist that there are elements of Chekhov's dialogue and characterisation which seem a good deal closer to the twenty first century than does the work of any of his contemporaries.

Two kinds of irony! The first is when Romola Garai as Nina demands,

Can you imagine what it's like to stand on a stage facing an audience knowing that you are acting really badly?
(She wasn't that bad!) The second, intended by neither the author nor anyone else, concerns celebrity and stardom. I had believed that the whole repertory season of Lear-Seagull was a sell-out, but that is by no means true of the Seagull performances in which William Gaunt, rather than Sir Ian McKellen, plays Sorin. In fact the 1000-capacity Courtyard was barely one third full. Which is a bit unfair, given that Gaunt is an excellent actor who used to be a TV star in his own right (remember The Champions?). But "well respected in the profession" is not quite stardom: I feel a Chekhov speech coming on.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

To read Lincoln Allison's review of Trevor Nunn's Lear, see: Lear, Tolstoy, Orwell . . . . and Me.

To read David Womersley's take on The Seagull, see: What is Chekhov's The Seagull about? David Womersley offers some suggestions.

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