|Photo: Shane Reid|
‘Little action, tons of love’ was how Chekhov described his new play The Seagull in a letter to Aleksey Suvorin in 1895. In this State Theatre Company of South Australia production, using an adaptation by Australian playwright Hilary Bell, there is ample inaction but not nearly enough love.
For the second time in two years, the STCSA’s scenic workshop has been pressed into service to stage a Russian classic (the other, a reworking of Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, was, incidentally, among Chekhov’s favourite pieces of fiction). The space – dark, musty and acoustically flat – has a hole-in-the-wall feel which is seemingly at odds with the faded but still felt opulence of Chekhov’s middle class world. The surprise is that it works, refreshing a century-old play by paring back its naturalism.
The action is lent the same charmingly crude theatrical effects as The Seagull’s play within a play, director Geordie Brookman further thinning the naturalism by, for example, having the bad weather of the second half denoted by a traditional wind machine and the actors throwing handfuls of white confetti above their heads for snow. The play’s two-year time lapse is signified by a caption attached to the back of an actor’s coat, the word ‘LAKE’ is printed in large black letters on the sliding door which is periodically opened to reveal the play’s key backdrop, represented by nothing more corporeal than a wash of blue-white light and swirls of dry ice.
When the audience enters the space, Medvedenko (Matthew Gregan) is serenading Masha (Matilda Bailey) on a parlour guitar as she fights to erect the heavy outdoor chairs for Konstantin’s (Xavier Samuel) play. (I should say here, as my only note on Bell’s otherwise competent adaptation, that the decision to dispense with the play’s famous second line – usually translated as ‘I am in mourning for my life’ – was an unwise one. The banal exchange with which she has replaced it has none of the arrestingly graceful poetry of the original). There are platforms at either end of the traverse stage, one comprising Konstantin’s playing space, obscured initially by a dark brown curtain, the other the interior spaces of Sorin’s estate, demarcated by the rolling out of various rugs. Designed by Geoff Cobham, all of this is elegantly simple and works, as it should, to maximize the audience’s attention to the performers.
The large ensemble, packed with STCSA stalwarts including Paul Blackwell, Terence Crawford, Lizzy Falkland and Chris Pitman, is strong and connected. Samuel, in overlong shirtsleeves and raffishly askew hair, is a suitably angsty Konstantin, though we have to wait until the play’s second half to see the best of him as he finds more of the melancholy and less of the vituperative excess in the part. Rosalba Clemente, in her first STCSA role in ten years, both dazzles and terrifies as the desperately insecure prima donna Arkadina. Renato Musolino’s Trigorin remains engagingly enigmatic even as his role in fulfilling the dark promise of the symbol of the seagull is exposed. Much less effective are the younger women in the cast. Matilda Bailey’s Masha is perversely dotty, while Lucy Fry in the crucial role of the ingénue Nina is unable to bring either the necessary allure to the first half of the play, or pathos to the second.
Where this production errs is in its pace, which always seems about thirty per cent too slow, as though Brookman has mistaken the play’s lack of dramatic action for, simply, a lack of drama. Lifelessness, rather than emphasis, fills this production, the powder keg passions of Chekhov’s characters undermined by a feeling of enforced languor. The transitional songs, sung live by the cast to Gregan’s accompaniment, contribute to the problem by borrowing too heavily from the current mania for soporific acoustic pop of the Jason Mraz variety. There are, I think, other missing or imperfect connections, from, for example, Nina’s final speech to Chekhov’s deeply embedded sense of irony, and from the exaggerated awfulness of Konstantin’s play to his psychological turmoil.
There is much to commend in this plain rendering of a play that, as recently as 2011 in this country, has seen many radical interpretations. Even in translation, the clarity and penetration of Chekhov’s feeling for the causes and consequences of human sorrow easily comes down to us through the decades. The Seagull’s great challenge – one which this production is not quite dynamic enough to meet – is that it is a comedy in which nobody is happy. That is life, and there is just not enough of it in this production to make it a great rather than good one.