In Sean Holmes’ production of The Seagull the audience are cleverly cast in a vital if silent role: that of the play’s omnipresent lake. We become the backdrop of Konstantin’s experimental play, the place where the titular seagull is shot, the shore along which Nina eventually stumbles back to the scene of her downfall. We are confidants, somewhere for the characters to throw out wry asides, inner tussles and rapturous confessions. It certainly solves the classic Chekhovian problem of rambling non-sequiturs. But can this staple of Restoration comedy work in Chekhov’s Russia?
The answer, in Simon Stephens’ dreamlike yet visceral adaptation, is absolutely. It’s an inspiration that partners well with a production both contemporary and classic, modern dress juxtaposed with a reliance on horses to get about. Much of its success can be attributed to the superb casting. This is not, as with so many Seagulls, a stifling parade of plummy monologues. Here we have the dialects of Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Estuary English and South London. These are, thanks to Holmes’ fine direction, tangible people with viscid relationships. Konstantin’s play-within-a-play is for once not treated as purely ridiculous spectacle: we can understand the troubled young man’s frustration all the better for seeing flashes of his genuine talent. Meanwhile his mother Irina’s behaviour, verging on bipolarity, can be pitied rather than laughed off as mutton playing at lamb. And in almost every character we see a wretched loneliness taking its toll. “All this love,” as doctor Hugo says, “it does nobody any good at all.”
Hyemi Shin’s design is potent in its peculiarity: stark prickly trunks transforming into a fiesta of fairy lights, curtains of printed forestry suggesting a knowing artifice, a bitter gale ruffling the sad plastic sheeting of a once-busy estate. Her 21st century costumes cut their own attractive shape: a pineapple-motif jump-suit, a smug polo neck and jaunty hat, a bright persimmon cut-off cardigan. Little touches with the props too – a dead seagull in a plastic bag, a fishing rod and rifle becoming opposing metaphors for courtship – consolidate this sense of timelessness.
Lesley Sharp’s Irina is a tigress masquerading as a kitten – as volatile, giddy and needy as a coked-up starlet at her own retirement party. She pays compliments to her rival with a deliciously detached air, fluttering about the stage before confiding: “I could play a fifteen-year-old, I think.” Lloyd Hutchinson, as estate manager Leo, is hilariously awkward, eventually laying into his employers with a blustered rage that encapsulates the topsy-turvy nature of status within the play. Paul Higgins’ charismatic Hugo provides the closest thing to Chekhov’s own voice, treating everyone humanely while resigning himself both to their idiocy and his own vices. Brian Vernel’s hollow-eyed, piercingly good Konstantin stalks the stage like someone about to embark on a shooting spree. Raphael Sowole, as teacher Simeon, longs sweetly for a wife then projects a powerful disappointment when he finds married life to be even more isolating than bachelorhood. And Adelayo Adedayo’s Nina is a breathtaking presence, all radiant nerves in the first three acts and heart-wringing ruin in the fourth. Her face is endlessly watchable: a single expression in response to Boris’ “There aren’t many women who are both young and interesting” elicits a huge laugh. Nina is a difficult part to portray without coming across as a hysterical drama school auditionee, but Adedayo triumphs in both the light and the dark of the young woman’s journey. You’ll be seeing much more of her.
Stephens mines the text for humour brilliantly, though not to the detriment of the weightier scenes. Boris’ seduction of Nina, for one: this plays both as a cynical seduction and the anguished confession of an obsessive artist. Irina’s own seduction of Boris is excellent, too, even as we see it will be as long-lasting as the desperate sexual act she convinces him with, as humiliating as the tissue she thrusts at him afterwards. The final act may leave us feeling bleak and bereft, but where else to go in this tragedy? “A work of art should be built around an idea,” Hugo tells Konstantin after his ill-fated play. “Otherwise, when you set out, you’ll lose your way.” Everyone here ends up lost, but through their disorientation we find much of ourselves.