Let me tell you a story about how a seagull once tried to murder me at a harbour in Cornwall.
So. I was on holiday, crabbing next to one of those mooring post things. It was low tide, quite a bit of a drop, me and my brother are stood on the edge. Then, one of these orange-billed fuckers swoops down, clips my head with its wing and proceeds to perch itself on top of the post.
I completely lost my balance, I felt myself go on tiptoe and almost went over the edge. Damn near went headfirst into the harbour. I THOUGHT I WAS GOING TO DIE.
I didn’t, much to my brother’s annoyance. The moral of this particular story is I fucking hate seagulls and they’re all evil.
The Seagull, on the other hand, I love. It’s one of about three plays I could watch forever. I remember listening to that thing David Hare said about how Chekhov matters how you do it; it’s not Hamlet, you can’t do it badly and still expect it to work. It’s certainly a delicate play, a beautifully balanced play, but what struck me as Simon Stephen’s version moved towards its conclusion is that there is an immovable devastating spine to this play. I think Konstantin’s arc will always be shattering, in the same way that Hamlet’s demise is always shattering.
Stephens’ text highlights a couple of things that I probably should have recognised before. The first is just how much of The Seagull is about art; they’re all utterly obsessed with it; making it, breaking it, criticising it and revolutionising it. It’s a play whose characters are dripping with ambition – none of them are that old, I suppose. Those desires have yet to be tempered, and the need to be taken seriously on that front is the single most important thing to so many of them. Personal relationships are disposable, even family comes second to white-hot ambition.
The second is just how horrible everyone (except Hugo) is to Konstantin. The way he is treated is appalling – and I’m not sure why that’s never struck me before. Perhaps it’s Brian Vernel’s performance, a young man whose cockiness exists only to disguise his heartbreak, who is very funny, and who plays the ending with an unnerving blankness – but it’s as much in Lesley Sharp’s performance as Irina. The way she screams at him, the way she postures to everyone else and fawns over Boris… she’s utterly miserable and rather pathetic. The brilliance in Sharp’s performance is that although Irina wants to hog the limelight, Sharp never does. It’s a lower key Irina, one whose influence is felt rather than seen, but one that’s probably all the crueller for it.
Sean Holmes’ production very quickly kicks the (somewhat) expected fourth wall down. The internal reality of the play is blurred with our reality; characters pose for us, look to us for approval; there’s a sense of pageant to it, characters strutting up and presenting themselves. I’m not sure that this works, other than to remove us slightly from the story, and this feels particularly jarring in the first act when we are introduced to the characters sequentially. It’s a good thing that this pageantry starts to diminish as the play progresses towards its conclusion, although it does mean it’s not until the third act that we get any sense of humanity in Irina (although how much of this is text and how much is style of direction, I’m not sure yet.)
I’m gonna briefly talk about the set because sets are awesome and fuck you, ATCA. It exposes the mechanics of the Lyric’s stage; you can see the pulleys and the doors at the back; it’s a place of heightened performance, strings of fairy lights glowing in the spring. As the play progresses, the space contracts, gets closer to the audience, all icy cold and blue, plastic sheeting hanging limply. There’s something of an abattoir about it. During the scene changes (and they are long scene changes, the lights in the house are brought up and people have a bit of a natter) we see the work done by the stagehands shadow puppet style, but as they leave the stage and the actors take their marks we’re left wondering who is who; who is actor, who is scene-setter – and then what’s the difference.
It’s less vodka-soaked than the Chekhovs at the NT last year (my only other Seagull, incidentally.) Pain comes from the words, but the words don’t explicitly come from alcohol. On that point, there’s less sense of this being a rural place, one where drink provides the only escape. It could be a suburb to the city instead of miles and miles away. The only place we know it is, is the theatre itself. And when it is could be whole other essay. There’s references to horses and farming but the fairy lights are electric, the characters wear leather and lycra – not a linen jacket in sight. So similarly, the only when it’s happening, is now.
So what does that mean? It’s taking place in this theatre, right now. People are talking in their own accents (except Lesley Sharp?) which is lovely, so cohering this family is about more than resemblance. I think it’s ultimately to do with the trajectory of the play; all that stuff – time, place, reality – becomes superfluous when you focus in on the tragedy at the heart of The Seagull, which at least for me is the destruction of Konstantin. In that painful fourth act, when Nina (how have I not mentioned Nina yet????) comes back, and proceeds to break what’s left of his heart, it simply doesn’t matter, because this young, talented, funny young man is about to kill himself. Holmes and Stephens never shy away from that, and it does become the thing that haunts you.
Each act is a season; starting with the optimism of spring (and an appropriate burst of Vivaldi,) turning through into winter. How much of what happens in The Seagull is as inevitable as that transition? We know spring must become summer, but must Boris destroy Nina? Must Konstantin shoot himself? I think this production suggests that in the case of the latter, it is. The way Irina and Boris and even Nina are set up as destroying him, it becomes clear that the logical conclusion to what his mum does to him in the first act (i.e. destroy his play) is always going to end in her destroying everything else if her behaviour is allowed to go unchecked – and unchecked it goes. It’s all well and good Hugo offering his support to Konstantin, but he makes no attempt to discourage Irina.
It’s just really fucking sad, I suppose.
Ultimately, The Seagull is a play that has power no matter how it’s done. Stephens and Holmes don’t turn it upside down, but they do make it fresh and immediate, the near three-hour run time zips by.
I was sat in the row behind a school group (unsurprisingly, the phone that bleeped didn’t belong to them, but to the couple behind me that had tutted when they saw the kids) and honestly half my enjoyment was in watching their reactions. I had no idea whether they knew the ending, and given the way they jumped, I doubt it. I loved the way they roared with laughter when Irina asks Boris “You’re coming, aren’t you?” Mainly I’m jealous. How cool is it that they’re getting to see Chekhov – and cool Chekhov at that?
Photo by Tristram Kenton