A sophisticated production of Chekhov's classic that revels in its ambiguities.
The reflection from the lake dutifully constructed by set designer Tungsten Tang at the front of the ADC stage casts a fractured light upon The Seagull's characters, presenting them as no more than broken pieces with sharp edges, matching the spiky, fragmented, and shallow personalities depicted. The performances offer mere remnants of the inspiring creatives we are adamantly told we are dealing with throughout the play’s narrative, as the characters remark on each other’s relative artistic success. A metatheatrical excavation of the human behind the art, after 145 minutes of incredibly slick but slow-paced drama directed by Mimi Pattinson, Chekhov’s play finds very little to be salvaged.
It is difficult to locate the tone of The Seagull: it presents us with insufferable artists whose work offered in glimpses is laugh-producing in its attempts to be profound and simultaneously expects us to lament as these characters become swallowed by their creative torment. The tragedy and comedy of this piece don’t operate complimentarily but, rather, contradictorily. In many cases, this begs us to entirely change our outlooks on characters, which is a lot to ask of an audience that struggles to commit to either end of the spectrum. The absence of convincing extremes is partly due to one-dimensional performances that leave us wanting more from lead characters. Without magnetism, it is hard to sympathise with the protagonist Konstantin’s (Ollie Flowers) creative endeavours and trials as being anything more than what his competitor Trigorin (Jacob Benhayoun) regards a ‘tantrum’.
An outlier from this trend, however, was Eirlys Lovell-Jones in her portrayal of the witty and highly self-conscious actress Arkadina. Flitting seamlessly between heart-breaking desperation and self-indulgent humour, she compels the audience’s utmost attention whenever on stage. Her persuasive glimpses of vulnerability match her self-protective narcissism so that, in moments of callous cruelty, we rapidly forgive her.
Lovell-Jones also facilitates moments of spine-tingling chemistry with those she appears with, forming the play’s most memorable scenes. Arkadina’s candour-turn-cunning actorly manipulation of lover Trigorin following his stinging suggestion that she ‘step aside’ is a gasp-inducing moment; her frivolous dismissal of Masha is cutting (Irisa Kwok); most poignant, however, is her confrontation with son Konstantin, Arkadina’s sharp accusations of his creative weakness and parasitic nature inducing him to collapse in tears in a rare moment of evocative vulnerability from Ollie Flowers. The blocking of the two, crouched down before the dining room table, clutching onto each other, eye-to-eye with despair, engendered an almost-romantic agony, read as Freudian in line with Konstantin’s constant desire to impress his mother.
Ex-lawyer Sorin (Isaac Jackson) and his doctor, Dorn’s (Liam McMillan), exchanges of banter emanated a light of humanity in the play seldom found elsewhere, their contempt for each other breeding into friendship as the former became visibly more unwell. This shift was complemented elegantly in the second half’s set change, Sorin now occupying a makeshift bed on a chaise longue as the other characters moved frantically between dining table and desk amidst their reunion.
Liam McMillan as Dorn was an unassuming talent. His first moment on stage, in which Polina (Imogen Gray) remarks that he was 55, despite visibly being the younger of the two actors, provides unwritten humour; and yet, by the end of the next scene, his mannerisms and excellent tone of voice had me fully convinced of his seniority. McMillan’s earnestness of character is built throughout the play, constructing a platform from which his attempted kindness in the deliverance of The Seagull’s final tragic lines is made all the more heartbreaking.
This sophisticated production of Chekhov’s classic, lifted in mood by its evocative symbolic staging and lighting, revels in its ambiguities. Whether purposeful or not, it provides no definite conclusions and leaves no one in the arts safe—though I’m sure this excellent cast and crew provide an exception to The Seagull’s self-referential critique.
The Seagull is on at the ADC Theatre until 20th May 2023.
Photo credit: Charlotte Conybeare