Chekhov's THE SEAGULL a new online version

ATC YouTube, Global

08/05/2020 - 31/05/2020

COVID-19 Lockdown Festival 2020

Production Details

Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL, a new online version by Eli Kent and Eleanor Bishop, directed by Eleanor Bishop brings a landmark piece of theatre to the 21st century.

Delivered in 30 minute instalments over four weeks from Friday 8 May, this production will be rehearsed, performed and broadcast all in the online space. The actors will have just one week per episode to read the script, learn their lines and rehearse, ready to broadcast on Friday of that week.

Every Friday, 8 May – 29 May 
ATC Facebook

Chekhov’s famous characters are reimagined as an extended Kiwi family congregating over Zoom. In a direct commentary of our world in lockdown, the characters are still searching for meaning in their lives while battling love, jealousy, dissatisfaction, dreams, hopes and plans – not to mention malfunctioning video calls! This drama all plays out in self-isolation and over virtual interactions with each other.

This retelling of Chekhov’s classic The Seagull is created by a brilliant artistic team and stellar cast, all from their own bubbles. The creative team envisioned this project as a snapshot of our current Alert Level, so if our situation changes, so too will the characters.

Chekhov’s The Seagull will be presented in four 30 minute parts. The first episode will screen for FREE via Facebook Premiere and YouTube Premiere on Friday 8 May at 7pm.

View all episodes here.



2020 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year JENNIFER WARD-LEALAND as Arkadina (ATC's Six Degrees of Separation and Mrs Warren's Profession)

STEPHEN LOVATT as Dorn (Pop Up Globe 2018/19, ATC's Mrs Warren's Profession)

FASITUA AMOSA as Medviedenko (ATC's Rendered, Silo's A Street Car Named Desire)

GORETTI CHADWICK as Polina (ATC's Still Life with Chickens and To Kill a Mockingbird)

ARLO GREEN as Konstantin (ATC's BOYS, Silo's Hir)

BRUCE PHILLIPS as Sorin (ATC's Six Degrees of Separation and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead)

BRONWYN ENSOR as Masha (ATC's BOYS, Pop Up Globe 2018)

MUSTAQ MISSOURI as Shamraev (ATC's A Fine Balance, Silo's My Heart Goes Thadak Thadak)

NATHALIE MORRIS as Nina (ATC's The Audience, One Lane Bridge)

SHADON MEREDITH as Trigorin (Red Leap's The Arrival, Shortland Street)


ELEANOR BISHOP – Co-adapter and Director (ATC's Mrs Warren's Profession, Silo's Body Double)

ELI KENT – Co-adapter (ATC's Peer Gynt [recycled], All Your Wants and Needs Fulfilled Forever)

OWEN McCARTHY – Video Designer, DOP (Zanetti Productions' The Contours of Heaven, Red Leap's Owls Do Cry)

JASON SMITH – Sound Designer (ATC's You Can Always Hand Them Back)

DAN WILLIAMS – Design Consultation (ATC's Filthy Business, Silo's Mr Burns) 

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4x30 min eps every Friday

Dead Bird: Reflections on The Seagull

Review by Nathan Joe 10th Jun 2020

During the Covid-19 lockdown, Auckland Theatre Company launched a four episode adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull created within the constraints of social distancing at the time. Using the now widely used Zoom app as its mode of production, it was also set within the world of Zoom too, placing its characters squarely within the circumstances of our global pandemic. Nathan Joe responds.

ADAPTATION This isn’t the first time either co-writers Eleanor Bishop (BOYS, Mrs. Warren’s Profession) and Eli Kent (Peer Gynt: Recycled) have adapted a classic from the theatre canon. It is, however, certainly the adaptation that feels the most situated in the immediate present. This isn’t a period drama or set in some vague place or time. It’s very much 2020 New Zealand in the midst of lockdown. [More


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Act Four: A living testament to the resourcefulness and resilience of creative artists

Review by John Smythe 30th May 2020

When the Auckland Theatre Company announced this new online version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, the media release said: “The creative team envisioned this project as a snapshot of our current Alert Level, so if our situation changes, so too will the characters.” Thus Acts One, Two and Three – rehearsed and recorded week-by-week throughout this month – have evoked Alert Levels 4, 3 and 2.*

But Act Four takes place two years after the first three acts: 2022 in this adaptation. So, assuming the pandemic will have passed by then, why are the characters still Zooming? Well, Arkadina is in New York with Trigorin and, having heard her bother, Sorin is unwell, she has invited everyone in New Zealand to Zoom together for ‘Sorin’s Bingo Night’ – virtually reviving a family tradition that used to happen at the Lake.

While he’s waiting, unseen Konstantin logs in to continue writing the 4th Draft of a screenplay, set at the Lakeside: a faded wooden stage, and old curtain, a young woman … (you have to get up close to read the tiny type) – which he closes when people start Zooming in. The sight of Arkadina (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) and Trigorin (Shadon Meredith) in their NYC apartment, all dressed up having been somewhere and getting all smoochy and romantic, does not impress Konstantin (Arlo Green), who walks away – as they disappear into the bedroom.

Attentive viewers will note Konstantin is now working from Dr Dorn’s place, and Masha (Bronwyn Ensor) is there too – because Level 2 allows it. Medviedenko (Fasitua Amosa) is back at their place, however, looking after the baby he and Masha have had since they got married. It is he who mentions hearing someone weeping the other night, by the old stage down by the lake where Konstantin, as a child, used to put on his plays with Masha as his Stage Manager.

Before the gathering proper starts, then, we have been alerted to Konstantin’s state of mind – more effectively, I suggest, than through the original play’s reliance on verbal exposition – and this will permeate the subtext as the ensuing preoccupations of everyone else take precedence.

Masha is clearly not interested in coming home to her husband and baby. Her mother, Polina (Goretti Chadwick) earns no thanks for trying to get Konstantin to “be nicer to Masha” by complimenting him on having his short films accepted into film festivals. Polina empathises with Masha’s unrequited love pain because she still holds a candle for Dorn – who has returned from a long-desired trip to James Joyce’s history-rich Dublin (replacing Genoa in the original) to find he’s “running a boarding house” and Konstantin has turned his lounge into his private studio.

Swaddled, cushioned and wearing a beanie despite being inside, Sorin (Bruce Phillips) observes he must be really ill for his sister to have gone to all this trouble. His litany of woes at an unfulfilled life gets short shrift from Dr Dorn, who thinks fear of death is illogical.

It is Sorin’s enquiry about how Nina’s been faring that brings Konstantin from his moody guitar-playing in the background. With an apparent dispassion that suggests his emotional devastation has rendered him devoid of all feeling, he relates the story of how Nina and Trigorin got together in LA – he was “bi-coastal” – and had a stillborn baby, so he got bored and went back to Arkadina; Nina carried on, got a literally short-lived part in NCIS … Her beautifully-written emails are a mixed blessing for Konstantin. He’s seen an Instagram that suggests she’s back in Auckland – and Medviedenko thought he saw her up at the lake …

Arkadina emerges from the bedroom to be flattered by Shamraev (Mustaq Missouri), who always seems to wait for her appearance before he activates his camera. There seems to be a rapprochement between Trigorin and Konstantin but the latter is somehow unable to accept compliments about his short films, let alone encouragement to get to LA and “take some meetings”.

At last the business-at-hand – online Bingo – begins, except Medviedenko has to attend to a crying baby, not that anyone has any sympathy for him (again this story element is covered much more effectively here than in the original). It’s a shame that something that Masha murmurs in Konstantin’s ear is unintelligible, given it pisses him off and sends him away. (In the original he is offended at the discovery that Trigorin has read his own stories in a magazine but the pages of Konstantin’s contributions remain uncut.)

The robotic tones of the Bingo calls are counterpointed by Arkadina’s account of how she was feted at the Benefit Concert she was part of tonight (it’s past midnight in NYC now). Konstantin’s background guitar strumming – which Polina knows indicates he is sad – allows for some up-front gossip about how one of his short films was called ‘tone deaf’ and caused offence at a recent film festival. While Trigorin thinks the problem is that his characters don’t seem real, Dorn can see great potential in Konstantin’s work – but Arkadina pays no attention. In fact she has never seen any of his films: “I don’t have the time” – an attitude that recalls his awareness, in Act One, that because he didn’t want his famous actress mother in his play, “already she hates it, even though she’s never read it.”

As for the Seagull that Konstantin shot in Act Two – Chekhov’s gesture towards the Symbolism he has satirised through the play performed in Act One – Dorn and Masha have gone to the trouble of having it stuffed for Trigorin but the great film-maker has no memory of expressing that wish.

Konstantin’s creditable rendition of The Front Lawn’s ‘Andy’ (“don’t keep your distance from me”, redolent with nostalgia for his past with Nina) is insensitively shut down by Arkadina – despite the fact that Sorin, for whom the Bingo game was set up, has fallen asleep – and wouldn’t you know, it’s Trigorin who wins. But when everyone leaves, except for the sleeping Sorin, and Dorn and Masha, who remain in the room where he is, Konstantin comes close to the screen to continue the song with a full-voiced vengeance.

Then he vents his disillusionment with his own failed attempts to explore ‘form’ with his films and find deeper meaning than anyone else does, while “he” (Trigorin) continues to make populist mainstream films full of great characters that people love that end up having more meaning than he can ever hope to create in his entire life … As he as he tortures himself, attempting to articulate a new rationale for how to continue, already-drunk Masha, who has been dancing to his singing, drains a wine bottle and leaves by the ranch-slider. And once Konstantin has talked himself to a standstill, Dorn observes a long silence before going to get the stuffed Seagull.

Serendipitously Nina chooses this moment to Facetime Konstantin – and I fear that any attempt to describe what follows will diminish it. In a riveting rendition of multiple levels of being, Nathalie Morris embodies vulnerability, confidence, pain, joy, pragmatism, idealism, optimism and total devastation. It’s a performances that transcends the writing which nevertheless brilliantly pulls together all the plot and thematic threads while distilling what may be called (to bounce off the earlier reference to James Joyce) A Portrait of the Actress as a Young Woman. And it also includes a revelation that we know must devastate Konstantin. In the original he rips up his manuscripts; here his permanent deletion of all digital drafts of his screenplay is as shocking as it is clinical.

But hey, life goes on – there is a stuffed Seagull to deal with … And here is where the comedy-of-the-human-condition turns to tragedy. We get a little time to consider the implications of the sound we hear, then when Dorn returns from investigating and contrives to keep the truth of it from Arkadina and confide in Trigoron, it’s over. End of play (as per the original). And a long credit sequence over the image of a jetty reaching into a misty lake offers time and space to ponder its meaning.

Director Eleanor Bishop, with co-writer Eli Kent and their team of creative artists and actors, have collaborated to make a great virtue of all the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. This online version of Chekhov’s The Seagull is a living testament to the resourcefulness and resilience of creative artists.

View all episodes here – free until 3 July 2020.
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*Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced four Alert Levels on Saturday 21 March and the following Wednesday we were in Level 4 Lockdown for a minimum of four weeks. We had eased off slightly into Alert Level 3 when Act One was rehearsed and produced for screen release on Friday 8 April. Act Two launched on the cusp of Level Three to Two, and bubbles felt slightly expanded for Act Three.


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Act Three: Superb combination of text, subtext and visual language

Review by John Smythe 23rd May 2020

New Zealand, May 2020, Alert Level 2. This time Trigorin is hosting a ‘Farewell Zoom’, Nina is texting gift boxes, emojis and, mysteriously, “01:24:32”. We discover the melancholy piano music is being played by Masha (Bronwyn Ensor) in her customary solemn black, including eye shadow.

At the end of Act Two Arkadina (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) interrupted a soulful interlude of mutual admiration between Trigorin (Shadon Meredith) and Nina (Nathalie Morris) to tell him they were not leaving for New York after all – to the obvious delight of her fiancé and the besotted wannabe actress. So what has changed?

When Trigorin, in the hangar, finds Masha has already joined, their Zoom-à-Zoom reveals she is so sick of herself and her unrequited love for Konstantin that she has decided to “grow up” and marry Medviedenko – everything is just “a construct” after all. She clearly believes her tragic life will be good source material for one of his films and Trigorin, eyes blocked by sunglasses, remains enigmatic. He does reveal, however, that Arkadina’s decision to leave has been precipitated by “Konstantin’s accident”.

As Masha departs, Nina appears wanting a random choice by Trigorin to help her decide whether to take her agent’s advice and go to LA for the pilot season. (Are they even happening beyond the scripting stage? Don’t think so.) Both remove their sunglasses and their yearning for each other is palpable. Trigorin happens to mention he has a small but sunny place in L.A. She transcends her sadness at maybe never meeting him in person by tantalising him with “01:24:32”: it’s a time-code in one of his films. As spookily astute with her timing as ever, Arkadina pops in with a progress report on her packing. She wants him up at the house so they “can do this goodbye thing together” but he still has things to “tidy up”.

Poor lonely old Sorin (Bruce Phillips) is sick of the Lake and wants to come into the city and have a farewell drink with his sister at The Viaduct but she insists he must not. She needs him to keep an eye on Konstantin whose accident turns out to have involved his father’s gun. It’s because Arkadina believes Konstantin is jealous of Trigorin that they need to leave but Sorin thinks his being dependent on them for money has more to do with the boy’s state of mind – which precipitates an outpouring of their own respective money woes. When all the agitation causes Sorin to collapse, Arkadina has to ring Polina … (Of course in the original play they were all in the same room; just one example of the ingenuity inherent in this adaptation.)

Both Konstantin (Arlo Green), vaping and with his head bandaged, and Medviedenko (Fasitua Amosa), ready to party with a ‘Bon Voyage’ sign, know Sorin is prone to fainting and when a revived Sorin insists he still intends to come to town, it’s the school teacher who quotes The Riddle of the Sphinx (the one that Oedipus answers to free Thebes of a plague; it’s in the original play but seems especially redolent here).

A superbly played scene between mother and son starts gently and lovingly but their differences of opinion about Trigorin and the relative talents of the two writers drives Konstantin into a tantrum and Arkadina into bitter name-calling – quickly regretted. And it’s here – as they reconcile and the boy reiterates his hopeless love for Nina – that I become especially aware of how sophisticated the design elements and camera work have become in this episode. We may not sense subtext in quite the same way as we would all gathered in a theatre but there is plenty to pick up on in the astutely-framed visual language.

Of course Konstantin vanishes when Trigorin appears to tell Arkadina they should stay: “It’s still too dangerous.” Of the many emotionally complex scenes in The Seagull, this is possibly the richest. She knows why he doesn’t want to leave and that expressing her rage won’t win him back to her. Trigorin’s feelings for Nina are beyond his control. And they attempt to talk it through like mature adults. What’s normal? What’s pure? The question we seek an answer to is, who has the power in this relationship? Arkadina’s vulnerability is clear even as she emotionally manipulates him – or does she? Ward-Lealand could have played the histrionic diva here but the choices she makes instead are infinitely more interesting and heart-rending.

In the original play Trigorin says, “I have no will of my own; I never had. I am too indolent, too submissive, too phlegmatic, to have any.” But here he buries his inner turmoil and jots down something apparently unconnected in his notebook, leaving us to wonder whether he has submitted, is scheming or is deluding himself.

Maybe the Farewell Zoom agenda will get back on track with the arrival of Shamraev (Mustaq Missouri), worried he’s missed them, and Dr Dorn (Stephen Lovatt), claiming to have lost track of time while working out on his exercycle. But Dorn’s warning about how dangerous their planned return to NYC is goes unheeded, as does as Shamraev’s long anecdote about a famous Kiwi actor (currently featuring in The Luminaries, as it happens) who played Iago back in the day. His quoting “From this time forth I never will speak word” is deliciously ironic, and a clever replacement of now obscure anecdote Chekhov wrote.

Polina (Goretti Chadwick) reports she has checked on Sorin – who poignanly reappears all dressed up with nowhere to go. The farewells ensue and all seems complete, except for Arkadina’s distress at Konstantin’s absence. But wait, there’s more. As a coda, we are privy to what feels like an illicit assignation between Trigorin and Nina, wherein the mystery of “01:24:32” is solved and what was subtext is given words.

Where to from here? The final act will play out next Friday 29 May from 7pm (NZ time).

See Act Three here | See Act Two here | See Act One here.


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An intimate adaptation

Review by Ethan Sills 19th May 2020

Auckland Theatre Company was only into the second of the seven plays it planned for the 2020 season when Covid-19 reached New Zealand. Now, like essentially every theatre company around the globe, those plans are up in the air.  

Yet from adversity comes creativity, and the company is one of the first in the country to adjust course for our new normal. Like many workplaces, video chat service Zoom has proved ATC’s saviour, as they present a quarantined edition of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. [More]


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Act Two: Of books, writers, fame and prophetic musing

Review by John Smythe 16th May 2020

Set a few days after Act One ends, everyone is still in Lockdown. Vigilant observers of the introductory graphics will note that Arkadina’s email ‘to me’ (i.e. she has BCCd the group but the ‘to me’ also speaks to her self-centredness), has invited everyone to a Book Club Zoom meeting at noon on Friday 1 May.

Whereas Masha was the Zoom host for Act One, Act Two comes to us through Nina’s online viewpoint. She logs on to find multiple “Where are you?” text messages from Konstantin, followed by Hamlet-to-Ophelia quotes from the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene – an echo of the exchange between Konstantin and his mother, Arkadina, early in Act One, as everyone ‘gathers’ to watch his play. Nina’s only answer is “??” before she escapes to the Instagram page of Arkadina’s famous screenwriter lover, Aleksei Trigorin @aleksei_writes. Nina’s click-to-enlarge a bare-chested pic of Trigorin (Shadon Meredith) drinking in a garden, and the hovering of her mouse-pointer over the heart – it’s already liked by bluedotsproduc and 162,382 others – reminds us where her naive passion has become diverted.

And so to a cover-image of Guy de Maupassant’s short story, ‘Afloat’, and Arkadina’s invitation to her Book Club meeting. (Also known as ‘On the Water’ and ‘On the River’ it was published in 1888 and is referenced in Chekhov’s play, written eight years later.) All this delicious detail is contained in the two-minute prologue created by Video Designer Owen McCarthy to a languid music track laid by Sound Designer Jason Smith.

Arkadina (Jennifer Ward-Lealand), Dr Dorn (Stephen Lovatt) and Masha (Bronwyn Ensor) have already ‘arrived’ when Nina (Nathalie Morris) joins the Zoom meeting, only to retreat to get a cuppa as the narcissistic diva continues to critique Masha’s unkempt appearance and lack of lifestyle, then elicits affirmation from unrequited lovelorn Dorn as to who looks younger. The ever-effervescent Arkadina and misanthropic Masha are wonderfully contrasted by Ward-Lealand and Ensor.

It has to be said that while Chekhov set out to comically satirise the self-indulgent preoccupations of Russia’s middle class, the depth of character Stanislavsky pioneered with his Moscow Arts Theatre productions imbued the good doctor’s plays with such recognisable human vulnerability and fallibility that audiences worldwide could not help but empathise with them. We continues to smile with, rather than laugh at, them even as we feel their pain – and this Eleanor Bishop-directed update, co-created with Eli Kent, ensures the same applies as we tune into their contemporary, NZ-set Lockdown adaptation.

We may assume there is a lot of Chekhov in Dr Dorn and that he is also laughing at/with himself as a doctor, by making him critical of everyone’s risky behaviours, and as a writer by having him read a passage from Maupassant that begins, “It is as dangerous for society to attract and indulge authors as it is for grain-dealers to raise rats in their granaries.” Of course Dorn is making a point about Arkadina and Trigorin with the bit about women laying siege to authors by indulging and flattering them. Arkadina’s 2020 response to that is a prime example of the perceptive wit inherent in this Kent-Bishop version.

When Sorin (Bruce Phillips) arrives, he assumes Nina is delighted that her father and stepmother have gone away (as per the original), now that ‘Level three’ has arrived, and wants to know if she has ordered any take-aways yet. We also learn Trigorin’s self-isolation is over and he is back with Arkadina, who is delighted he is getting so much writing done. Referring to her smartphone, Nina lets slip he is back from fishing but Arkadina’s opportunity to ask how she knows is interrupted by the arrival of Medviedenko (Fasitua Amosa), to whom she expresses her disappointment at the absence of her son, Konstantin – still smarting, we suppose, from the failure of his symbolist play to impress his mother.

An exchange between Masha and Nina reminds us of Masha’s unrequited love for Konstantin, Medviedenko’s unrequited love for Masha and the shift in Nina’s shifting affections. What follows prompts Arkadina to observe New Zealand is even more boring than usual under Lockdown and her displeasure deepens when the property manager, Shamraev (Mustaq Missouri), appears in answer to her summons and is commanded to send the estate’s hard-drive over to her by courier so she can look through a large number of old photos and select some to send to a magazine that’s doing a feature on her. Shamraev’s gentle suggestion that Sorin could email them points up his employer’s ignorance of the technology and, hilariously, Masha’s “Dropbox” interjections go unheeded.

In the original play the conflict flares up over the blithely entitled Arkadina wanting a carriage and horses take her to town, only to be told by the manager it’s rye-hauling day and all the horses are needed for that. In both cases she attempts to pull rank and Shamraev resigns (a regular occurrence, apparently). In this version Arkadina rails at New Zealand’s failure to give her the respect she deserves and declares she’s going back to New York never to return. I’m surprised Dorn doesn’t caution her that NYC is extremely dangerous right now before she storms out – having switched off her camera but not her mic. He knows better than to cross her, I guess, and later he does mention New York is dangerous.

That those who remain take her side, rather than that of the man whose work is allowing their privileged lifestyle, is a prime example of Chekhov refusing to give his audiences a non-flawed ‘goody’ character to lead our thinking. Instead he provokes us to decide for ourselves where we stand – as do Bishop and Kent. And it’s not so simple when we see Shamraev’s wife Polina (Goretti Chadwick) tell Dorn (her sometime lover), that her “pathetic” husband has lost the back-up hard drive.

Nina’s device has remained linked to the meeting even when she has taken her headphones off and briefly left the room, thus maintaining our access through her viewpoint. She is, of course, dismayed at the prospect of Trofimov leaving with Arkadina. But Polina is more interested in watching undie-clad Dorn swim a couple of lengths in his lap pool than listening to Nina burble on about Arkadina and Trigorin. We, however (if I am a typical audience member) are fascinated by her hero-worship of them both. Polina is provoked to destructive action, however, when Nina shows Dorn an amusing meme on her phone.

Alone, and not for the first time, Nina uses her screen as a mirror to check her appearance before realising Konstantin may have been clandestinely tuned in the whole time when his screen suddenly appears, framing a dead seagull splayed out on a tree stump. Clutching the rifle set up on Act One, he declares he shot it for her and may do the same with himself. Unimpressed she tries to jolly him out of it but he is down a deep well of self-pity and low self-esteem. And again it’s impossible not to recognise the truth of this state of being.

The arrival of Trigorin, back from fishing and beaming in from a farm shed that houses a helicopter, sees him walk away leaving his device framing the seagull, which prompts the famed writer and film-maker to jot something down in his ever-present notebook. His desire to change places with Nina, just for an hour, so he can write young women better is of course seductive to her. Conversely she dreams of being a famous artist like him, the “one in a million” who rises above the humdrum lives most people lead – but he likens her flattery to “McDonald’s chocolate sundaes which I try not to eat.”

Scholars have mused on the parallels between Chekhov’s experience and Trigorin’s ambivalence at being addicted to writing; to being afflicted with a never-resting brain that compulsively harvests everything meaningful in his life in case he can use it to feed his faceless audiences. That he never feels the results are good enough despite their box-office success, and he can never win in the court of public opinion about whether his work it art or populist, only increases Nina’s adulation, and she itemises a list of what she would be prepared to suffer to gain “real, lasting, transcendent fame.”

Reluctant to obey Arkadina’s text to come an pack for their departure, Trigorin asks for more detail about the dead seagull and is instantly inspired to create a tragic story about a girl who, like the seagull, loves the lake and whose fate is determined by a man with nothing better to do but destroy them.

Is this prophetic? Trigorin’s winning smile prompts me to wonder if another Hamlet quote – that “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain” – fits here. When Arkadina Zooms in to tell him they are not going after all, does she sense the electricity in the atmosphere? Tune in next Friday …

Oh, and that small detail about how Nina knew Trigorin had been fishing is answered in the visual epilogue. Once more I applaud the attention to detail in every dimension of this brilliant production.

See Act Two here.


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Act One: Zoom, Zoom, we’re stuck in our rooms

Review by John Smythe 10th May 2020

When Konstantin Stanislavski directed Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, a whole new form of theatre became airborne.* Now, 122 years later, a new version of the same play seeks to perform a similar feat.  

What better choice, then, for the Auckland Theatre Company’s contribution to current attempts to find new ways of creating theatre in the time of COVID-19 Lockdown. Artistic director Colin McColl, famed for liberating Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler from “gloom, gloom, I sit in my room” interpretations by relocating it in contemporary Wellington in 1990, has commissioned Eli Kent and Eleanor Bishop to collaborate on a ‘Zoom, Zoom, we’re stuck in our rooms’ version of Chekhov’s The Seagull – set in contemporary Locked-down New Zealand.

Amid an extended family’s personal preoccupations with money, unrequited love, casual love and new-found love, the play portrays an ambivalent relationship between a highly successful mainstream theatre star and her rebellious yet needy son who seeks to revolutionise theatre with an obscure symbolist play, written by himself and performed by the girl from next door, whom he adores. (It feels especially apt to be publishing this on Mother’s Day.)

The four Acts, adapted by Kent and Bishop, play out in four half-hour episodes, released on successive Friday evenings (from 8 May 2020) via the ATC Facebook page. Each week, director Eleanor Bishop rehearses with the actors via Zoom, with designer Dan Williams consulting on the look of each character and their environment. On the Friday, after a final dress rehearsal, the actors perform for the recording which is then sent to Jason Smith, the sound designer/composer, and Owen McCarthy, the video designer, to lay the music and do final tweaks to sound and vision before it’s uploaded to YouTube and Facebook for the 7pm release. The result is very high quality at every level.

The opening imagery establishes this is New Zealand in April 2020 at Lockdown Level 4. The need to watch the show on a computer or TV (rather than a phone) is emphasised by the vexed text messaging between the meeting host Masha and school teacher Medviedenko, followed by a tiny-print help desk message to Medviedenko. Easy to see, however, is the array of attractive head shots that turn out to be the official Instagram page of Nina Zarechnaya, self-described as “Actress. Dreamer.” Self-promotion is the name of the game these days and she is telling the world that she’s going to perform in Konstantin’s new play today.

Sitting on her unmade bed, Bronwyn Ensor’s black-clad Masha appears and peers into her screen with black-rimmed eyes to see who is ready to join her ‘meeting’. Fasitua Amosa’s headphone-clamped Medviedenko is the first to ‘arrive’. Frustrated by trying to teach tweenies from his garage, he also bemoans having to provide for his whole extended family on a teacher’s salary.

Their prickly relationship is quickly apparent as Masha offers advice from a podcast she’s listened to about relative happiness levels for the poor and rich. Mention of the play for which they are gathering provokes Medviedenko to note, “It’s not a play, it’s a digital event,” and add, “Konstantin has had a wonderful writer’s residency thanks to COVID.” He becomes so absorbed in critiquing the lovelorn boy’s privilege, he doesn’t notice Masha is more interested in her cellphone.

Anyone with access to the original play will appreciate how brilliantly Kent and Bishop have trimmed Chekhov’s wordy text to its ‘less is more’ essence. While the clever updating flows naturally in words and action, the focus remains firmly on the characters and their relationships. The subtext we tune into is confirmed when Medviedenko reminds her he’s in love with her but believes he’s unworthy – even though we will soon discover she is the daughter of the couple who manage Sorin’s estate. Indifferent to his plight, she eases the tension by jokingly offering him a toke on her vape.  

When Bruce Phillips arrives as the benign Piotr Sorin, he needs to be coached on Zoom technology. Sorin owns the estate by the lake where the family would normally gather, and the wall of his study features a framed group of revered Irish Writers. We will soon discover his own dreams of being a writer have come to nothing, hence his admiration for his nephew. Sorin’s comments in the original play about being unsuited to life in the country are adeptly adapted to life under quarantine. His major concern is that he has run out of milk for his tea and is not allowed out to buy some because he is “one of the vulnerable.”

Being young (25), Konstantin has a device he can move about with and is clearly adroit with the technology. In the role, Arlo Green masks his anxiety – about Nina more than his play, he claims – with a supercilious Gen Z air that feigns boredom. But his amiable chat with Uncle Piotr reveals that his mother (Piotr’s sister, the famed actress Arkadina) is “in a mood”, both bored and jealous, because Nina gets to be in his play and she doesn’t, “So she already hates it, even though she’s never read it.” His summary of her complicated character includes ridicule of her superstitions and her commitment to mainstream theatre – “a parade of clichés” – as opposed to his vision of a new form of theatre “that actually matters.” He does admit to loving his mother despite her lifestyle of flying to and from Broadway, with “The National Treasure” (celebrity screenwriter Trigorin) on her arm. But the totality of his love for Nina has destabilised him.

Ready for her closeups, Nathalie Morris’s Nina has glitter-gel under her eyes and on her lips. Left together with Konstantin for a moment, she reveals her Dad is angry at her involvement in this play, and she misses the lake – I feel drawn to it, like a seagull” (apparently inland seagulls are a thing) – before noticing a gun in the corner behind Konstantin. His father’s old hunting rifle. (Theatre scholars will note the planting of ‘Chekhov’s gun’.)

Masha alerts the couple that people are waiting, and while Nina is carrying her device to the pre-prepared performance set, she happens to mention her ‘character’ is not real. Challenged by Konstantin to explain, she admits to her preference for plays about people in relationships, prompting him to declare his play is bigger than people. This wonderfully realised interchange captures perfectly the emotional complexity of a defensive writer and ambitious actress whose difference of opinion is compromised by their being in love with each other, not to mention minutes away from performing. While all viewers will have their opinion, it puts me firmly on Nina’s side regarding the richness of relationship drama.

As Nina goes to ‘preset’, Konstantin declares the house to be open – and the first people admitted by Masha are Stephen Lovatt’s Dr Dorn and Goretti Chadwick’s Polina (wife of the manager of Sorin’s estate). Clearly unaware that Masha, as host, remains privy to their conversation, it becomes apparent there is an illicit relationship sizzling between them despite her knowing he still holds a candle for Arkadina.

The production’s management of the technology makes Jennifer Ward-Lealand’s ‘entrance’ as Arkadina seem to summon a whoosh of admirers. As well as those already seen, the other newcomers are Mustaq Missouri’s Ilya Shamraev (Polina’s husband) and Shadon Meredith’s Aleksei Trigorin, who is back in the country from a writer’s residency in Montana but obliged to isolate in a “weird B&B” for two weeks despite being symptom free, not that Dorn is convinced he’s safe. “We’ll be together soon, my love,” coos the ever-radiant Arkadina. She laps up Shamraev’s admiration of her in A Streetcar Named Desire back in the day – which cues another round of commentary on the current state of theatre.  

When Konstantin arrives, excitement is heightened – and he meets Arkadina’s show-off Gertrude quote, from Hamlet, with a rejoinder that earns him applause from all online. The lighting and camera work for Nina’s solo exposition of Konstantin’s end-of-human-inhabited-world vision, in which the likes of Zuckerberg and Bezos are name-checked, is superbly realised, with the audience forming an attentive border around two sides.

But Arkadina fails to mute her mic and intrudes with her own collaborative contribution, causing her son to pull the plug, have a meltdown and storm off. The awkward silence is broken by a defensive Arkadina who wants to feel comfy, cosy and entertained in the theatre and finds this “new art for a new era” offensive.

Likewise some people I have spoken to since Friday evening have felt confused while trying to connect with this ‘real world’ classic through Zoom, even though it is produced and post-produced to a high level of excellence. It’s a form of culture shock, like the transition from live theatre to silent films then on to talkies and the ever-evolving movie formats. This new technology is just another way of giving us the same opportunity to explore human behaviour in all its nuanced variety. And the bonus is you can watch it again, not least to appreciate the responses of characters who are not speaking. (I should add that the yellow borders round those who are speaking, usually offered at Zoom meetings, are not used here, so in large group scenes it can be distracting when you feel compelled to identify the speaker.)

The authenticity of the discussion that follows Konstantin’s walkout, including what’s not said by the silent observers, is compelling as it bounces from Trigorin’s “he’s exploring his truth” through Medviedenko’s “there are gaps between atoms” to Arkadina’s piano-accompanied nostalgia for gatherings at the lake as they were; for life as it was. Watch for Dr Dorn’s unspoken reaction to her mentioning him.

Nina pops in and is awestruck to be introduced to Trigorin, which somehow leads to Shamraev claiming to have contributed to the creation of The Flight of the Conchords. The collective response is priceless. Nina wants to stay and everyone else wants her to, but fear of her dad makes her leave. Gossip and judgement about her circumstances and father ensue. And as the ‘party’ winds up, poor Sorin remains bereft of milk.

A moment between Arkadina and Dorn is poignant, for him, and he’s left alone with his pets and bottles of booze until Konstantin returns, pissed off that Masha has texted him to do so but is not there (except she is). Only now does Dorn express sincere admiration for Konstantin’s talent and encouragement for him to keep at it. But the boy is desperate to see Nina and heads off despite Dorn’s caution and Masha’s turning up in time to be insulted by him.

Alone together, Masha makes a surprising appeal and revelation to Dorn who manages to show compassion although there’s a sense he is withholding something. Maybe, maybe not … Tune in next week for the next bound-to-be equally absorbing episode. 

As with all well-crafted art, the whole cast and everyone behind their Zoom frames make it all seem so effortless, it is easy to take their work and skills for granted. While I doubt anyone wants Zoom shows to replace live theatre long-term, the version of The Seagull sets a new standard for large cast performance in Lockdown. Enjoy the as-ever compelling drama while embracing the differences in its delivery.

See here.  
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*Back in the 1860s, having made his name with short stories and plays – farces, vaudevilles and ‘comedy jokes’ with a tragic edge – Dr Anton Chekhov fared badly with his first three attempts at full-length drama, so he abandoned theatre for six years. Was it disillusionment or amusement at the state of theatre and the Russian middle class that made him write The Seagull?

The opening night of its first season at Petersburg’s Alexandrinsky Theatre was greeted with hostility and derision. Ready to abandon playwrighting again, the last thing Chekhov wanted was for The Seagull to be seen in Moscow but Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko convinced Stanislavski to direct it for their new and innovative Moscow Arts Theatre, formed to address the sense of crisis prevailing in theatre at the time. It was with this production that Stanislavski developed his idea that the tragi-comic nature of life could be found in the details of natural human behaviour, which included honouring the play’s emotional subtext.

Olga Knipper (Chekhov’s future wife) played the famous actress, Arkadina; Vsevolod Meyerhold (destined to become Stanislavski’s theatrical ‘heir’) played her son, the would-be playwright, Konstantin; Stanislavski himself played her new lover, the successful writer and respected member of the intelligentsia, Trigorin. It was such a success that a seagull became the Moscow Arts Theatre’s emblem. How apt that a play which, in part, satirises the rise of symbolist theatre in Russia should happen to be the one that gave birth to the naturalism that has sustained mainstream theatre and become the foundation of screen acting to this day. 


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