The Seagull

ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

19/08/2007 - 26/08/2007

Westpac St James, Wellington

14/08/2007 - 14/08/2007

Production Details

By Anton Chekhov
Translated by Trevor Nunn in consultation with the company in rehearsal, based on a literal translation by Noah Birkstead-Breen
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Set design by Christopher Oram
Sound design by Fergus O’Hare
Lighting design by Neil Austin
Stage director Trevor Nunn


Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece threads comic and tragic situations in the lives of a famous actress, her son and their lovers. As the young strive for fulfilment, their older counterparts look back to youthful dreams that remain unrealised.

Frances Barber returns to the RSC to play Arkadina. She last appeared with the Company in 1985. Her recent stage work includes Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and alongside Ian McKellen in Aladdin at The Old Vic. “Frances Barber’s Arkadina is a star performance” – Sunday Times

Romola Garai makes her RSC debut to play Nina. Romola recently played Celia in Kenneth Branagh’s film version of As You Like It and has also appeared in the films Amazing Grace (opening this month in New Zealand), Paradise and Inside I’m Dancing. Her television credits include Daniel Deronda and Nicholas Nickleby for the BBC and Mary Bryant for Granada Television (which recently screened on TVNZ). “Romola Garai’s Nina is a revelation… The supporting performances reach superlative heights”  – Evening Standard

Richard Goulding appears as Konstantin in his first professional engagement since his training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Jonathan Hyde returns to the RSC after 15 years to play Dr Dorn.

“The production looks a picture with Christopher Oram’s vista of misty lakes. It’s a Seagull to enjoy” – Guardian

Where: Westpac St James Theatre, Wellington
When: Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Times: 7pm
Cost: Buy Tickets

Where: Aotea Centre, THE EDGE, Mayoral Dr, Auckland, Auckland
When: Sunday, 19 August 2007 – Sunday, 26 August 2007
Times: Sun 19 & Thurs 23 7pm; Wed, Sat & Sun 26 1pm
Cost: Buy Tickets $50-175 0800 TICKETEK

Frances Barber
Romola Garai
Richard Goulding
Jonathan Hyde
Monica Dolan
Gerald Kyd
Ben Meyjes
Melanie Jessop
Guy Williams
and Ian McKellen, alternating with William Gaunt

Theatre ,

Middle class deprivations

Review by Nik Smythe 23rd Aug 2007

There’s a certain degree of expectation when one attends a production of a historically classic Russian play by what must be the most famous theatre company in the world.  I expected it would probably be of a traditional period-style leaning with solid performances by thespianic giants and their booming voices and such.  And I expected it to be brilliant. 

To a large degree I was right on, although the distinctive performances of each player were, while clearly defined and even in some way stereotypical, never two dimensional or unbelievably melodramatic.  The contradiction to that is Frances Barber in the role of ruthless self-promoter Arkadina, although being an actress, her excessive melodrama is not so unbelievable.  In any case, I was right about the brilliant bit.

A possible misconception could be that being a three hour Russian play over a hundred years old, it’s probably slow and boring.  Yet the driving passions, curious eccentricities and frequent wit of the characters on stage if anything had the reverse of a somnambulant effect on me.  The comedic favourites are Monica Dolan’s wry and bitter Masha, who lives her life in funeral dress and drinks whenever possible, and Arkadina’s brother Sorin (shared by William Gaunt and Ian McKellen*), an old judge who looks back on his life with a resigned sense of a kind of ironic failure. 

The central character Konstantin, played with bleeding heart on sleeve by Richard Goulding, is a writer tortured by his need to express something more meaningful than the status quo style theatre that his mother Arkadina represents. The begins with his first abortive attempt at symbolist theatre, in the form of a starkly doom-laden vision of the distant future of our planet. His play also marks the unofficial debut of aspiring actress Nina, played by Romola Garai. She is the youngest character, yet as she constantly fidgets and expresses fear and awe in equal highly-strung measures, she seems the most like a heart attack waiting to happen.

Gerald Kyd’s bohemian writer Trigorin and Guy Williams’ jolly but precious steward Shamrayev are also turns of note, as indeed they all are.  I am compelled to give an honourable mention to Ben Meyjes, largely out of sympathy for his largely ignored character of pathetic and terminally boring schoolteacher Medvedenko.

The characters are recognisable archetypes without being clichéd.  The setting is big and imposing without being flamboyant or gauche.  The frank declarations each character makes are often earnest and emphatic but never mawkish or overplayed (again with the aforementioned exception of prima-donna Arkadina).  In every aspect of production the levels are at an optimum without ever being too much.

The impressive set designed by Christopher Oram evokes a possibly symbolic sort of subdued majesty:  A giant, worn country mansion of mottled grey which looks as though it was white once, set about upstage with the trunks of tall silver birch trees.  Upon this stage director Trevor Nunn has the spatial canvas to give the dramatis personae a solid foundation, and with minimal technical assistance from Fergus O’Hare’s sound design or Neil Austin’s lights, the performances carry the story with consummate strength and skill.

The translation is credited to Nunn in consultation with the company in rehearsal, based on a literal translation of Anton Chekhov’s original Russian text by Noah Birkstead-Breen.  It clearly has some degree of autobiographical exploration regarding the trials and dilemmas of being a writer for theatre.  Persons well read in the history of Chekhov’s private life may know how much self reference is contained within the extensive loop of unrequited love. 

To give an idea of that, if you don’t already know the story:  Terminally boring schoolteacher Medvedenko is in love with Masha, however Masha is in love with Konstantin who in turn loves Nina.  Nina also wins the affection of Trigorin and for a change it is reciprocal, however Trigorin is constrained by the tight grip of his lover Arkadina, Konstantin’s mother.  Meanwhile Masha’s married mother Polina is in an illicit ongoing affair with Dorn, a successful doctor and 1890’s Russian playboy type.     

The only other reciprocal romance, and indeed what seems to be the most successful, is the obvious affection shared between Arkadina’s maid, portrayed with perfect coyness by the disarmingly pretty Zoe Boyle, and a ruggedly handsome estate worker played by Philip Winchester in his RSC debut.  Their attraction is slightly hampered by the affections of another worker, Yakov (Peter Hinton) whom the maid finds creepy and who also appears frowned upon by the senior housekeepers.  Nevertheless this silent story illustrates the pervading sense that the upper-middle class are more lost than the servants in their no longer feudal society, so dependent upon their big estates and their social credibility.  They all complain of having no money, yet there appears little if any constraint put upon their somewhat extravagant lifestyle. 

The acute sense of deprivation each character expresses suggests the struggle survive and simply exist is not a prevailing issue in their lives so, as any self-important human rightly does, they invent reasons to find survival a struggle, tortured by their craft, or domestic issues, and of course the favourite and most unsolvable tragedy for us all: obsession with unrequited love. 

I hate to belittle Chekhov’s reputation as a theatrical pioneer by pointing out the similarity to modern day shows such as Desperate Housewives, yet both do belong to a greater history of tragicomic tales about rich folk and their agony.  I’ve often suspected such works to be a ploy by the aristocracy to keep working class morale up by implying that money does not make people happier, so they in turn will be less resented and their lovely wealth less coveted.  Of course there are considerably more layers to The Seagull than that, plus as glib as the notion that money can’t buy you love may be, I can’t actually deny the truth of it.

* Embarrassingly, due to not registering the 7.00 start time, I missed the first half on opening night, in which McKellen played Sorin with glorious decrepitude.  By the generosity of the Edge’s production staff I got another ticket to the next matinee, with William Gaunt in the role, thereby having a rare opportunity to cross reference their performances.  Whilst Gaunt is larger, gruffer, and even more ‘like a homeless alcoholic’, as the character claims to have always looked, the essence of Sorin’s personality is fairly identical; a testimony to Chekhov’s ability to create clear characterisations through written dialogue. 


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Comedy, melodrama and undertow of tragedy

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 16th Aug 2007

Caryl Brahms, the writer and Chekhov enthusiast, once referred to English productions of plays by Russia’s most famous playwright as "Chekhov with the gloves on." She meant that the plays had been uplifted from their rough native soil and transplanted to the softer, autumnal gardens of genteel, middle-class England.

The Royal Shakespeare Company performs The Seagull with the gloves off in Trevor Nunn’s excellent production, triumphantly finding the comedy, the melodrama and the undertow of tragedy in this play that’s all about a complex network of self-obsessed characters all suffering from unrequited love.

The melodrama at the end of the second act is played to the hilt (frenetic action and a swelling musical soundtrack) when Konstantin attempts to kill himself. This scene is not in Chekhov’s play but it is an addition perfectly in keeping with his intentions and it is an excellent climactic moment just before the interval.

This is also a very funny Seagull without any sense of the comedy being forced for easy laughs. A wooly-headed Ian McKellen in the small role of Sorin, an old duffer of a retired civil servant who wants to live life to the full and so has a sherry with his dinner, garners laughter in almost every scene. And Frances Barber as Arkadina, a famous actress who believes she is always in touch with her feelings, makes this self-centered skinflint of a provincial Duse amusing without making her overbearing.

Romola Garai’s Nina is all youthful idealism and she possibly overdoes the dewy-eyed innocence when Nina first meets the famous writer, Trigorin, but she handles touchingly, despite a monotonous high-pitched voice, Nina’s return in the last act when Nina has been swept through the whirlpool, which is how she describes the loss of her child by the indifferent Trigorin.

The Seagull is Chekhov’s Hamlet and Richard Goulding’s Konstantin, who describes his mother Arkadina as a psychological phenomenon, is excellent in the role, particularly in the most Hamlet-like scene when Arkadina bandages her son’s head after the botched suicide attempt. There is excellent work too from Jonathan Hyde as the local doctor, Gerald Kyd as Trigorin, and from Monica Dolan as the alcoholic Masha who always wears black and is famously in mourning for her life.

All in all, this is a much more evenly balanced, strongly anchored production than King Lear, even if the country estate where it all takes place grows leafless Silver Birches that could get lost in the clouds.


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Truth + pain = comedy

Review by John Smythe 15th Aug 2007

If The Seagull stands where Anton Chekov’s career paths split to run in parallel, it also marks the collision point of different theatrical conventions. It embodies a conflict between two distinct styles, and the way it was finally performed adds a crucial third dimension.

Having made his name with short stories and plays – farces, vaudevilles and ‘comedy jokes’ with a tragic edge – Anton Chekhov, a doctor by profession, fared badly with his first attempts at full-length drama. Disillusioned with the failures of Platonov, Ivanov and The Wood Demon (later to be revised as Uncle Vanya) over a decade or so, he abandoned theatre for six years.

His next effort, The Seagull, was so poorly produced in the stock Imperialist Theatre style by St Petersburg’s Alexsandrinsky Theatre in 1896 that he might have forsaken the stage forever had innovative director Konstantin Stanislavsky not chosen it to launch the Moscow Arts Theatre (MAT), two years later. It was so successful, Chekhov’s playwrighting career took off and the MAT used the outline of a seagull in flight as its logo.

Also in the last decade of the 19th century, a challenge to the established theatrical order was being mounted in Moscow by the symbolists (a.k.a. the decadents), like Hauptmann, Maeterlinck, Meyerhold and Bely. The third dimension of the discourse came with Stanislavsky’s revolutionary approach, employing naturalness, simplicity and clarity in meeting the MAT’s ideal of an ensemble theatre dedicated to good citizenship and public education.

It is the swirls created by these interweaving currents that keeps The Seagull airborne as it pursues its exploration of theatrical aesthetics amid a tragi-comic plot of unrequited love.

Arkadina is an egocentric actress of the old school, emotionally self-indulgent with a penchant for trivialising whatever she fears or doesn’t understand. Her judgemental, volatile and vulnerable son, Konstantin, is an aspiring playwright and poet of the symbolist school and passionately in love with Nina, the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, who is star-struck by the famous novelist Trigorin, Arkadina’s lover on this summer holiday at her brother Sorin’s country estate.

Masha, daughter of Sorin’s steward Shamreyev, is madly in masochistic love with Konstantin, who despises her, while she is similarly disdainful of the schoolteacher Medevenko’s forlorn devotion to her. Meanwhile her mother, Polina, is illicitly in love with Dr Dorn and desperate for him to take her away from her life-sapping existence …

With such flawed characters, largely self-absorbed with their insoluble dilemmas, and without goodies and baddies playing out melodramatic plots to be rounded out with some predictable moral, what’s needed in performance is a compelling veracity, born of belief in the people and their preoccupations, and a clear recognition of the abiding truths of human existence. These are the preconditions for realising a Chekhov play, where truth + pain = comedy.

In presenting The Seagull, in repertoire with King Lear, the Royal Shakespeare Company delivers on all fronts. Nestled in the shell of the same palatial set, with long Silver Birch trunks standing in front of a stylised dark and brooding lake, the characters gather to see the premiere of Konstantin’s symbolist play, set two hundred thousand years into the future and performed solo by Nina – but not before his mother, fearful of any young actress, indulges in a little impromptu Gertrude with Konstantin answering as Hamlet … And so the love-hate, true-false, known v unknown themes are set.

The theatrical flourishes and emotive excesses Frances Barber brings to Arkadina are entirely true to the character. She and director Trevor Nunn have chosen to play up her ‘Player King’-like capacity to ‘make milch the burning eyes of heaven’ in her emotive extremities, to the extent that the joke seems to be on Nina when she exclaims she has never seen and actress really cry before. Certainly it’s Arkadina’s own awareness of her Drama Queen skills that gets the biggest laugh of the night.

As with her Cordelia, Romola Garai compromises our insight into the essence of Nina through her strange vocal strangulations, strident tones and forced physicality. Initially it seems to fit, and the character’s role in the story is clear enough. But Nina goes through a huge rite of passage from naïve wonderment to humdrum actress blooded by real life experience, even if co-dependent love does still impede her progress, and Garai’s range is just too limited to do this great role justice.  

Standout actress of the whole company for me is Monica Dolan, whose black-clad, snuff then alcohol-addicted Masha – "I’m in mourning for my life!" – is a tour-de-force of depressive humour, and a total contrast to her excitable Regan in King Lear. Allowing her own Irish essence to infuse her performance has everything to do with the depths of truth she plumbs as Masha.

Richard Goulding’s Konstantin is richly credible no matter where he is on his emotional roller coaster. By bringing his offstage attempt at shooting himself into the onstage action, Nunn, Goulding and the ensemble point up the irony that he, of all characters, provides the most genuine moment of melodrama in the otherwise true-to-humdrum-life proceedings.

Gerald Kyd does not prejudge Trigorin as a self-centred bastard, allowing him to respond to each moment without any sense of subterfuge, even though the character does unwittingly forsee the future through the inspiration Nina gives him for a story. 

Making us want to give him a good shake, although we cannot help but take his side in all conscience, Ben Meyjes fully inhabits the pathetic teacher, Medvedenko. 

Having gone on as Frances Barber’s understudy in both plays for the majority of the opening seasons at Stratford Upon Avon (and being denied the right to a review because critics were barred until Barber had recovered from her bicycle accident), Melanie Jessop at last gets a chance to show us she too is a consummate actress, in her manifestation of Polina.

As her ex-soldier husband, Shamrayev, now steward of the estate and full of fascinating observations and anecdotes if only anyone would listen, Guy Williams contrasts his malevolent Duke of Cornwall delightfully. And Jonathan Hyde, as Polina’s would-be lover Dr Dorn, tones down the tenor declamations that characterised his Earl of Kent, to good effect, although he does get to sing quite a bit of his text.

Wellington was privileged to see Ian McKellen as Sorin, Arkadina’s brother and owner of the estate – a role he alternates with William Gaunt – and what a doddery delight he is as the retired bureaucrat, toning and timing him to perfection.

It’s a shame Wellingtonians demanded three performances of King Lear and reduced The Seagull to one, as the latter was clearly the better realised production overall. Although it’s not as crisply honed as Tom Stoppard’s 1997 translation (for the Peter Hall Company), this new English text, created by Trevor Nunn in consultation with the company in rehearsal from a literal translation by Noah Birksted-Breen, trips naturally off the tongue.

As to the symbolism of the shot seagull itself, I remain as bemused as Nina was when Konstantin first presented it to her, although she does keep trying to make it fit her increasingly doomed life. Perhaps there is something in the fact that it looks more alive when it’s stuffed: an enduring Chekhovian paradox?  


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