BAC (Battersea Arts Centre), London SW11
Opened 19 January, 2000

Chekhov's The Seagull is not principally a dramatically navel-gazing piece, but it is, in respect of its characters and setting at least, theatre about theatre. Andrzej Sadowski adds to this regression in Seagulls, which portrays a fictionalised version of avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold's company as they rehearse the Chekhov piece on the day in 1938 when Stalin's police came for him. Thus, we now have a play about a theatre company, which is rehearsing a play about a theatre company a nice hall of mirrors, and no mistake.

What is even more ingenious about Seagulls directed by Katarzyna Deszcz for Scarlet Theatre, and now entering London as part of the British Festival of Visual Theatre after a national tour is that it is impregnated with a coating which repels criticism. If a reviewer lambasts the ludicrous shape-throwing and ostentatious, self-satisfied artificiality of the performances if one dares to call the production grotesque in its unnaturalness why, those are exactly the same accusations levelled at Meyerhold's own theatre by Stalin's cultural creatures, so we are implicitly aligning ourselves with an evident, tyrannous evil!

Well, I'll start growing my bushy moustache and cultivating my Georgian accent now. You see, I found Seagulls smug, irritating and pointless. For all the writing upon Meyerhold's dramaturgical theory of "biomechanics", and his deliberate opposition to realism, there are no proper records of the kind of performances this actually produced. Any attempt to recreate these techniques, then, is going to be somewhat speculative at best. Deszcz's company, and in particular Burn Gorman (who is plainly less than half Meyerhold's age 64 in 1938 and resembles the director about as much as I do Nicole Kidman; but hey, who needs to be a slave to representationalism, right?), make their gestures and expressions with an air not of aggressive defiance, but of complacent superciliousness as if they do not care what kind of response they draw as long as they have the audience's attention. The trouble is that in fact they rapidly lose it; by the second half, when more and more naturalistic sidelights are being allowed on to the sombre thoughts of the various company members, the prancing and preening has worked its way too far up one's nose to be dislodged. Nigel Piper's score, too, simply repeats the same eight fractured bars what feels like forty-seven times or so within two hours. Seagulls is indeed all smoke and mirrors, and too fond of its own cleverness to conceive that it could be substantially criticised. Oops!

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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