Arcola Theatre, London E8
Opened 14 June, 2011

More than any other of Chekhov’s major dramas, The Seagull is an all-comers’ self-pity contest. The renowned actress Arkandina imagines herself penniless, her brother Sorin bemoans a life spent doing nothing, Medvedenko the teacher is constantly pricing up items, estate manager Shamraev has no spare horses to offer anyone, and Masha (there’s always a Masha, and she’s never the life and soul of the party) famously wears black because, as the opening exchange of this new translation has it, “I’m mourning my life.” Add to all that the assortment of life and art crises suffered by Trigorin, Konstantin and Nina and the fact that, in doctor Dorn’s sardonic words, “Everyone’s in love with everyone,” and it’s amazing that even the Russian master’s skill could make us feel a moment’s sympathy for any of them. Yet we do, and Joseph Blatchley’s production finds generous laughter that is almost entirely devoid of mockery.
Blatchley’s casting is not only astute but yet another measure of the stature enjoyed by the Arcola. Geraldine James’s Arkadina enjoys being the centre of attention but does not bask ostentatiously in it, and Roger Lloyd Pack is a natural match for Dorn’s deadpan remarks. As Arkadina’s son Konstantin, hard done by but principally too artistic.intellectual for his own good, Al Weaver’s sensitive, articulate performance has (not before time) lodged his name in my consciousness as one to watch closely. Yolanda Kettle makes a noteworthy professional début as Nina, physically transforming from the bright-eyed ingénue of the earlier acts to the sunken-eyed, despairing shell of the fourth. Matt Wilkinson’s Trigorin is not the smooth philanderer of other interpretations, but a man as ridiculously wrapped up in his own discontents as any of his fellows; his exploitation of the awestruck Nina is opportunistic rather than predatory.
Dora Schweitzer’s set design is founded on a stage entirely laid with grass sods; through the drapes I could see grass cuttings offstage as well, possibly to augment the theatrical effect like the sulphur that Konstantin insists be burnt at one point in his own impressionistic drama in the first act. I was in a minority in finding Helena Kaut-Howson’s attempt to revivify Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to be a misfire at this address a few months ago; Blatchley, however, like Konstantin, takes aim at the same target a second time and hits it squarely.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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