I’m not hugely proud of it, but I feel I ought to be honest in telling you that we left this at the interval. Hence this review of Chekhov’s The Seagull is technically a review of the first half but wild horses could not have dragged us back into the Lyttelton at the National Theatre, no matter how much I love Juliet Stevenson. It is presented here in a new version by Martin Crimp, condensed and stripped of its location, so that it is now set in some unidentified locale, a non-specific netherland which was quite disorientating. And combined with Katie Mitchell’s highly individualistic approach to directing, it means that this is most definitely Chekhov with a twist.
And I didn’t like it. At all. So many of the directorial choices were just annoying: the tendency towards the naturalistic speaking style meant that far too many crucial lines were swallowed up, most criminally in Nina’s monologue; even when they were loud enough, the idea to have the domestic servants continually running across the stage throughout the scenes resulted in more distraction away from the clear delivery of lines; the dim lighting restricts how much of the actors’ faces you can see (on the one hand this forces you to watch their physical performance more, but on the other, for a lip-reader like me, it was a nightmare).
The story is essentially about how painful it is to love someone who loves someone else. So playwright Konstantin loves actress Nina who ends up with novelist Trigorin, who just happens to be the partner of Arkadina who is Konstantin’s mother. And there’s a raft of supporting characters who follow the same pattern in being both attached to and attracted to the wrong people.
In Juliet Stevenson and Ben Whishaw, there’s two absolutely top-class actors on stage, supported by a number of strong supporting players, but it did not feel like Mitchell is interested in showcasing their talent but rather using them to prop up her ideas. Without fail, everyone is portrayed as irrational and self-righteous, so characters that are already self-pitying become even more unlikeable and unsympathetic. So despite their best efforts, Stevenson’s overly neurotic Arkadina and Whishaw’s subdued Konstantin just don’t engage at all. Hattie Morahan was good and nicely fragile but was guilty of the worst of the mumbling in the opening scene as Nina which was just frustrating to me.
So very little in here engaged me at all, combined with me not being able to hear the majority of what was being spoken and so over a gin and tonic at the interval, it wasn’t too much of a struggle to escape onto the South Bank instead of returning.