A friend and fellow-actor told me an old theatre joke the other day about the four-second version of The Seagull that’s based on the first and last lines of the play: ‘Why does Masha always wear black?’ ‘Because Konstantin shot himself’.
Described by Chekhov himself as ‘a comedy’, the play itself is singularly lacking in jokes. The opening night in Petersburg is one of the most famous disasters in theatre history: expecting a farce, the audience laughed in all the wrong places and booed at the end, and Chekhov fled the theatre vowing never to write a play again.
Stanislavski’s production in Moscow two years later was an equally famous triumph, but the great director (who also played Trigorin, opposite a young Meyerhold as Konstantin) turned the play into a tragic love-triangle and transformed it into the standard-bearer for his own brand of stage naturalism (a transformation later scathingly criticised by the vehemently anti-naturalist Meyerhold).
As drama, however, The Seagull is equally lacking in what we normally think of as dramatic action or even dialogue, at least if the latter is defined as speech that has some kind of performative effect or even moves the plot along. People talk and act, to be sure, but their words and actions have little bearing on the overall course of events. Instead they seem collectively mired in a kind of quicksand in which their every move only seems to sink them deeper in a process of inexorable and interminable catastrophe.
The Seagull is a transitional work — in Chekhov’s oeuvre and in the history of theatre. It stands at the crossroads between 19th century melodrama, naturalism and Symbolism, and points beyond them to the 20th century and the so-called theatre of the absurd. The title alone suggests an obvious precursor in Ibsen’s Wild Duck; but in Chekhov’s case the use of avian symbolism is characteristically ironic, as are the openly theatrical references (most obviously to Hamlet) and arguments about theatre, writing and aesthetics generally that crop up throughout the play — with Konstantin (played in this production by Luke McMahon) as a young struggling Symbolist locked in an artistic and emotional fight to the death both with his melodramatic actress-mother Arkadina (Greta Scacchi) and his popular realist-rival Trigorin (Ben Mortley).
In fact Chekhov’s use of meta-theatrical or anti-dramatic irony in The Seagull incorporates a kind of internal critique of its own subsequent performance history. This is one of the reasons it remains such an iconic work for playwrights, actors, directors, companies and audiences today.
Kate Cherry’s new production for Black Swan has a beautiful simplicity for me because it’s essentially staged in a completely traditional way. As such it’s absolutely Chekhovian because it reveals the outlines of the play with such poignant and clarity and mostly allows it to speak for itself without extraneous commentary. This is a far cry from Benedict Andrews’s version at Belvoir a couple of years ago (with Judy Davis as Arkadina and David Wenham as Trigorin), which convincingly transposed the play to a contemporary Australian beach-house — a production which was itself a kind of homage to Neil Armfield’s even more typically homely and minimalist version (with Gillian Jones, Richard Roxburgh, Noah Taylor and Cate Blanchett) at Belvoir a decade earlier.
Ironically these productions in the very act of stripping away accrued layers of sentimental performance traditions and conventions were less Chekhovian insofar as they staged a kind of stylistic intervention on behalf of Chekhov himself — the latter being scrupulous in his avoidance of any direct aesthetic, social, political or moral statements or judgements (again, unlike Ibsen) regarding his characters (most of whom vociferously take positions of their own on every topic under the sun).
For the same reason, I found some of the anachronisms in Hilary Bell’s otherwise smoothly playable translation — such as Trigorin’s very 20th century invocation of ‘human rights’ in his great diatribe about writing — struck a wrong note for me, especially given the otherwise very 19th century staging; and I found myself missing some of the play’s more conventionally theatrical soliloquies and asides to the audience which had presumably been discarded in the interests of naturalism (but for me enrich its formal complexity and charm).
In contrast, by presenting the play otherwise complete with its 19th century ‘Russian’ trappings (at least as seen through the lense of a certain ‘Anglo-Chekhovian’ tradition) Kate and her designer Fiona Bruce succeed in evoking a shimmering aura of lost innocence that made me laugh and weep at the follies of the figures onstage, their pretensions, delusions and desires.
The moment of directorial and scenographic ‘intervention’ comes in Act Four with the unexpectedly Symbolist staging of Nina’s (Leila George) fleeting return-visit to Konstantin as a kind of vision, hallucination or dream (depending on your point of identification): the flimsy stage-curtain ‘walls’ of the house parting as the miniature outdoor stage by the lake from Act One flies in as a platform for their brief reunion — all as if ‘dreamed’ by the dying Sorin (Michael Loney), who lies somnolent in his wheelchair at the edge of the stage, like a sleeping soldier at the edge of the frame in a Piero della Francesca fresco of the Resurrection.
Here the nostalgic heart of the production seemed ironically to lie with Konstantin and his modernist desire for ‘new forms’, rather than Trigorin’s realism (or Arkadina’s taste for melodrama) — indirectly confirming what Chekhov himself said of Konstantin, that he is ‘a victim of his own talent’ (a typically cool clinical diagnosis that could incidentally be applied to so many ‘modernists’, then and now).
Of course loss of innocence is one of the things that this play is fundamentally about. The comedy and tragedy of Nina and Konstantin falls essentially beneath this rubric; Arkadina and Trigorin have passed through it, and emerged world-weary and a little the-worse-for-wear but essentially intact on the other side, to compulsively deal out their own damage to others; and the same is true to a certain extent of Dorn (Andrew McFarlane), for me the character in the play who most resembles Chekhov himself.
Underlying this however is a darker undertow of familial damage, acknowledged or otherwise: Nina and her offstage ‘tyrant’ father; Arkadina’s abusive treatment of her son (mocked among other things for his ‘shopkeeper’ father, who is barely mentioned and never directly named — although Konstantin presumably suffers the humiliation of bearing his surname); Dorn’s unacknowledged parentage of Masha (Rebecca Davis) – explicit reference to which was cut from the end of Act One after the first production and never restored; the evident neglect of Masha’s own unwanted child with Medvedenko (Adam Booth) in Act Four; and the loss of Nina’s child with Trigorin.
This too is a vein that runs through all four of Chekhov’s great plays, each of which features a family crippled and even immobilised by damage, denial and loss. Against this (and arguably growing directly out of it) is set the theme of lost or unrequited love: Konstantin for Nina (and beyond her, his own mother); Nina for Trigorin (a loss also suffered by Arkadina herself, even though she ultimately ‘has’ him); Polina for Dorn (whom she similarly ‘has’ without really ‘having’ him); Medvedenko for Masha; Masha for Konstantin; and so it goes on. It’s a tragi-comic chain of desire that Chekhov himself knew intimately (as he did the experience of having a physically and emotionally abusive father).
All the performances in this production slot neatly into this carefully constructed chain of desire, and the result is an ensemble cast that effectively conveys the collective irony of their situation. The stand-out performance for me is Rebecca Davis’ luminous Masha (which brings me back to the opening joke, in which Masha is the prime target in her capacity as the emblematic Chekhovian character). Black-clad, and with expressively sculpted face and hands as pale and forlorn as slivers of moon, her transformation throughout the play from lovelorn but laughable Pierrot to hunched-over, hollowed-out creature of fate runs the gamut of Chekhov’s ever-changing moods and forms — from comedy to tragedy and from melodrama to absurdity — and provides the emotional through-line of the play. In another, very different production, I’d cast her as Konstantin; in this production, she’s his appropriate reflection. As such, it’s a show worth seeing for her alone.