Review: The Seagull, Southwark Playhouse

“I always wanted to be a writer”

With an iPod blaring out tunes from the likes of Cat Power and Animal Collective, characters wearing battered Converse and slim-fit trousers and a wannabe writer bashing away at a laptop, it is clear that Anya Reiss’ adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull is aiming to demonstrate the timelessness of the Russian playwright. But this reinterpretation, directed by Russell Bolam, strips away too much without establishing a strong enough sense of its own identity.

Elements of the play sparkle under Reiss’ touch, in unexpected places. Emily Dobbs’ vivid Masha is a cracking portrayal of the disillusioned young adulthood that is the by-product of rural isolation, as she longs for the moody passion of Joseph Drake’s immature would-be playwright Konstantin yet finds herself resigned to the duller safety net of Ben Moor’s well-observed schoolteacher Medvedenko. And there’s a neat touch too in the Act 2 opening sequence that speaks so much about how deeply she can feel.

But by contrast, the relationships at the centre of the play don’t impact anywhere near as powerfully as they should. Sasha Waddell makes a younger-than-usual Arkadina, Konstantin’s mother and an expansive extravagant actress whose retreats for the summer to her brother’s pile in the English countryside with her writer lover Trigorin, who finds himself taken by Nina, Konstantin’s lead actress and object of his own affection. Lily James’ Nina responds with an almost fangirlish admiration for his celebrity but her gaucheness is a little too emphatic, especially against Anthony Howell’s muted Trigorin who lacks a little of the charisma to make him a convincing pivot of so much romantic strife.

The ensuing tangle of love triangles, jealous sons and frustrated artistic ambitions – Nina too dreams of a life on the stage – rarely flickers into compelling life as performances fail to mesh together, hampered by a script that too rarely allows for the complexity of these conflicted emotions and a bare staging by Jean Chan which feels rich in unexplored potential.

The casting also feels a little curious in places. Malcolm Tierney’s frail Sorin seems a generation removed from Waddell’s Arkadina, rather than a sibling, though he has a dancing bright-eyed charm about him. But Matthew Kelly sounds all the wrong notes with a buffoonish take on the visiting Doctor Dorn which rarely convinces, though Reiss’ rewriting is also at fault here. Michael Beckley and Julia St John fare much better as the ever-present estate managers Shamrayev and Polina, full of wryness and warmth even in their brief contributions.

But ultimately this is an adaptation which is rarely bold enough to really make its mark in a cluttered collection of Chekhovs, especially when we have been so spoiled in recent times. Whether it’s ostensibly traditional adaptations that excavate the Russian’s acute psychological depths, such as the Arcola’s incandescent take on Seagull last year or the Print Room’s extraordinary Uncle Vanya, or bold re-imaginings like Benedict Andrews’ Three Sisters (which I can admire whilst not finding it necessarily to my tastes), this is drama that can patently take a wide range of concepts.

Reiss havers between these two schools though, a point reinforced by a note in the playtext about the setting. “The action takes place on the Isle of Man or wherever you will” so we’re caught awkwardly between the specific and the general: keeping original names and reference points in the text take us back to the motherland but the frequent mentions of the world outside relate to somewhere definitely closer to home. We’re clearly in a modern-day setting, yet Reiss makes no concession to the immensely different world in which the play now resides.

In trying to find this elusive middle ground between visionary audacity and faithful adherence and without a clear conceptual sense of what it is aiming for, this production consequently flounders somewhat. What ought to be devastatingly moving as the lighter comedy inexorably slides towards irrepressible tragedy simply sits in front of us, the production failing to catch flight and make our souls soar.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until 1st December

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