The Seagull – Review

Lesley Sharp and Brian Vernel in The Seagull. Images Tristram Kenton.

You’ll be disappointed – or possibly elated – to discover that Simon Stephens has ripped up Chekhov’s The Seagull and come up with a modern adaptation that de-clutters, reboots and redefines this masterpeice of 19th century theatre.

On the night I attended the Lyric Hammersmith there were coachloads of teenagers in who are, no doubt, studying the classic for their exams. Most probably expected a stuffy period melodrama that would bore the pants off them.

They must have been delighted to see an electric guitar on stage. Perhaps they, and I, missed it, but I don’t recall that in the original play.

This is a fresh, lively and buoyant production that is less about the meaning of art and more about idolatry, fan worship and obsession, themes that the younger generation can easily identify with.

Young Nina, determined to be an actress, becomes so overwhelmed at meeting her idol, the popularist writer, Boris Trigorin, that she flirts outrageously.

He, going through some sort of midlife crisis of confidence and age, is delighted to find a teenage fan and takes full advantage.

Nicholas Gleaves, as Trigorin, has one major, if overlong speech, when he bares his artistic soul to her. Christ, it is so awful being so talented a writer, such a burden, such a torment.

She laps it up, mesmerised by his celebrity and status. Who wouldn’t want to be famous?

Stephens has knocked the stuffing and formality out of the text but retained its warmth and colour. These are now real people, drinking too much vodka, worrying about paying the heating bills, trying to live vicariously through their art and torturing themselves when life intrudes.

Lesley Sharp is the big name in this production but, actually, it is a brilliantly conceived ensemble piece with cracking performances from everyone – including the taciturn, and uncredited, Jacob who fixes the fairy lights, carries the cases and generally wanders around the stage like a quirky odd job man looking for the exit.

That’s Chekhov’s strengths. His characters, principal and minor, are all fully fleshed out and here they are given space to eat their cornflakes, live to excess, and suffer the hangover the morning after.

The play takes place on the country estate of retired judge, Peter (Nicolas Tennant), whose sister is the famous actress, Irina (Sharp).

Her son, Konstantin (an intense Brian Vernel), all but abandoned by his ambitious mother, aspires to break the mould and become a symbolist, avant-garde, playwright.

He plans a preview of his new play for Irina when she arrives at Peter’s house for the summer with her lover, Trigorin.

Nina (beautifully played with wide-eyed innocence and charm by Adelayo Adedayo) is to be his leading lady and friends and neighbours make up the audience.

But Irina, unable to face the reality that her star is waning in a notoriously fickle industry, mocks the boy’s efforts. There can only be one star in the family and she is determined that it will be her.

I’m not sure who Sharp is channelling but her diva-actress is a real luvvie, a prentious monster that she plays stupendously well. Who can she be?

It is a deliciously fruity turn, with outsized mannerisms and overblown speeches that is occasionally poignant but mainly outrageously funny.

This is a very engaging production with more laughter and light than you would expect from Chekhov but exactly the sort of black humour that Stephens excels in.

This summer in the country (“The country is SO boring!” whines a bored Irina) drags on with personalities clashing, Konstantin becoming increasingly volatile, and relationships burgeoning.

The modern dress adaptation works briliantly with the exception of just one point. Much is made of various house-guests wanting to secure the estate’s horses to escape the countryside. Surely using motorised transport would not have detracted from the story?

I can imagine Irina and Trigorin sweeping up to the house in a vintage Mercedes cabriolet, her blonde hair tucked into a headscarf. Very her.

The language is super naturalistic. The play opens with teacher Simeon (Raphael Sowole) in a polite pissing contest with Marcia, the estate manager’s daughter who he loves, over who has the worst life.

He speaks in that peculiar way of turning each line of dialogue into a question and he is irritating the hell out of Marcia.

Later, Irina, jealous of her son but furious at his lack of drive, explodes at him. “You fucking tramp! You’re nothing!!”

Should I mention the sex act? Best not to. It’s not pretty or dignified but it does reflect the lack of love and genuine feeling in the relationship between the participants.

Love is in short supply here. Everyone is bored, frustrated, disapointed with life. It seems that one can’t be an artist of any persuasion without enduring suffering.

Only the fragile Nina, surely too vulnerable to work in a profession populated with Irinas, bares her soul and she is ruthlessly punished for her weakness. It’s heartbreaking.

The Seagull runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until November 4.

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