The Seagull

Anton Chekhov's Victorian drama of anything but seabirds

June 13, 2006
Old Fire Station Theatre, 13-17 June, 2006
Konstantin wants to be a successful writer and is in love with Nina, who wants to be an actress. Arkadina, Konstantin’s mother, is a famous actress who wants to be praised, worshipped and in control. Trigorin is a famous author who, while supposedly being the lover of Arkadina, seduces and corrupts Nina. Add to this a sickly uncle – Sorin – who regrets his wasted life; Masha, who loves Konstantin from afar but marries Medvedenko, an impecunious schoolteacher; and Dorn, a middle aged Lothario of a doctor who is actually Masha’s father - but don’t tell Shamrayev who is married to Polina (Masha’s mother). Make everybody damaged, or self-obsessed, and throw in the eponymous bird as a symbol of doomed hopes. Oh, and it rains a lot too! Result? Typical Chekhov play.

The Seagull is difficult as a piece of theatre: the long speeches, and the story set over several years, tax the actors in creating and sustaining believable characters. Pacing is also tricky- the lengthy speeches again. This production was a little underplayed for my liking – Chekhov bears heavy characterisation and real emotional punch in the delivery and the performance I saw was too restrained. Notable exceptions to this were Simon Taverner as a suitably regretful Sorin and John Owen as the self-obsessed Trigorin. Rosie Leach as Arkadina struck a chord as the selfish mother, and fading actress, in her scenes with her son and lover respectively. Suzanna Herbert’s Nina showed good development from the idealistic ingénue of the early scenes to the confused and neurotic fallen woman seen later in the play. And Andy Feld, as Dorin, injected energy with his pace of delivery and fine timing.

The cast and crew have clearly worked hard to put together an understandable and admirably well learned production of a difficult play and they deserve the reward of decent audiences in their run at the Old Fire Station until 17th June.
With its themes of the youth and age, how to live and how to make art, The Seagull is a very suitable choice for its young cast of current Oxford University students, who brought freshness and energy to this production. Principally telling the story of the doomed relationships between Nina and Konstanin, his mother Arkadina and her lover Tragnorin, there was an admirable lightness of touch, and some strong directorial decisions which did not overplay the symbolism of the play. Much of the acting was also skillful, with Bella Hammand as Nina in particular conveying both fragility and the will to survive very subtly.

However the production had a slightly unbalanced feeling, with too great an emphasis on the comedy of the play making its tragic elements seemed abrupt or out of context. There were some apparent nerves at first, with the cast moving, reacting and emoting too much as they settled into their performances.

The production did not entirely realise its potential in terms of staging. This was more evident in the first act, when the freshness of the outdoor scenes by the lake was not entirely convincing. The stage upon which the play within the play is performed was tucked away in a corner, almost impossible to see from where we were sat. As a central theme in the play, it was a shame that this symbol was sidelined and not given centre stage. The feeling of claustrophobia in the interior scenes in the second act was better achieved.

But the cast were strong and grew stronger. The shrillness of Arkadina and the excellent stillness and humour of Sorin were perfectly realised. The portentousness of characters such as Masha worked well but playing some minor characters entirely as fools did lessen the poignancy and impact of the play. There could have been more depth in the scenes between the more peripheral characters, but the key relationships in the play rang true and were powerful.

Overall the cast's energy and clear feeling for the script lend The Seagull many strengths and only a few flaws, and the cast will continue to settle into the play and the setting with aplomb.
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