Theatre Review: Anton Chekhov’s Seagull at the Arcola

Several weeks back, whilst waiting to get some money out of the cash-point at the Dalston Junction crossroads, I noticed a dead seagull on the road. It’s a bit rare to see these agile, corpulent birds as victims of city traffic, it must have been kamikaze-diving for some fast food remnants on the road. In any case, there it was, prostate, motionless, strangely haunting in its grey and white cleanliness amidst the bustle of the traffic flow.

By a bizarre coincidence, just some days after this I was asked to go along to the Arcola theatre’s latest production to do a review – which turned out to be Chekhov’s The Seagull. Dalston was telling me something ..

Over time, these coastal dwellers and seafaring opportunistic birds have gradually occupied inner-city tower block roofs and adjusted their diet to a very urban affair. It would be interesting to see how this production of the play would, if at all, embrace a similar scale of change to theatre and its production since the play’s premiere (one of spectacular failure in St Petersburg 115 years ago).

Having recently seen a superb Uncle Vanya at the Arcola, I went along with some preconceptions of what the production might involve, given the current Chekhov focus. My first error was to think, before entering the performance area, of looking for ‘Chekhov’s gun’, as it’s known – the prop that lies about, seemingly useless, only to show its significance at some random point later in the performance. Entering to a bare stage consisting only of artificial grass covered in hay (and smelling a bit like the zoo!), this was evidently a production that wasn’t engaging with baroque sets of era-defining props, so I was intrigued as to how they would create the lake and outdoor setting of the first act and the settings for subsequent acts.

With the actors casually engaging with text and set changes simultaneously, Medvedenko and Masha spread the blankets and cushions on the grass from where the audience would watch the young Kostya’s play. The outdoor makeshift theatre (in Chekhov’s text by a lakeside and positioned to frame the rising moon) is concealed behind a curtain to the rear left of the stage area. This is, effectively, how the set would change throughout the play, actors adding or taking away elements as the dialogue flowed.

This, I suppose, would probably be a criticism of the production. Whilst it is a new translation and has introduced some of the text cut from the original production, some elements of the set are, for me, critical to the drama. The opening act with Kostya’s symbolic, character-less monologue delivered by the revered Nina need the rising moon over the lake in the background (something that innovative lighting might have resolved) to capture the “possessed” element of the entire piece – and by extension of all the characters of the play. They are, to a man, tearing themselves and each other apart for either art or love (or both). Further into the play there was the decision for Act III, set in the dining room, to use three deck-chairs. This might have made sense if their use had continued into Act IV (a reception room two years later) but they didn’t, leading to a rather clumsy entr’acte of bringing large furniture pieces from the wings into the stage area.

The acting for this play, however, was good across the board and at times excellent. It is essential with Chekhov to expose the intellectual dimension of his work – and it is deep. Characters are tearing apart or are being torn apart, nobody is satisfied, futility abounds, tensions are palpable. This directs how the characters act and react, in turn demanding a broad spectrum of emotional and psychological response from the main characters. This is clearly revealed when the great actress, Arkadina, uses the crown jewels of her acting skill to beg Trigorin, the esteemed writer, to be faithful to her and not be tempted by the lure of the younger, beautiful Nina. At the end of this begging she suggests Trigorin should feel free to go to Nina, convinced already that her piece of theatre within theatre has worked her spell on him. This play within a play abounds with Chekhov.

For a work of this caliber the actors do have to be at the top of their game – inevitably the main characters receive the acclaim, but the importance of the minor characters come through in this production. I think that having stripped back the staging to focus on the visceral and psychological qualities has allowed these to shine – both Jodie McNee (as Masha) and Paul Westwood (as the bumbling Medvedenko) give assured performances, both resigned to a difficult life together that reflects the tensions taking place all around them. Al Weaver (as Konstantin) delivers a performance of energetic brio, capturing the crumbling mental fabric of an aspiring writer who is self-destructing for both love of art and loss of love. Matt Wilkinson (Trigorin) gives a convincing account of both the diffidence and remoteness as well as the necessary turmoil of the writer – not the dream life that the young Nina (played by Yolanda Kettle) thought it was, and he sends out clear warning signals to this effect. I reserve especial praise, however, for Geraldine James as Arkadina, who brought a combined air of grace and gravitas to the stage when she was on it. It seems to me that Chekhov wrote well for his main female characters, but also demandingly. She filled the role with aplomb – Chekhov would have admired this performance.

Whilst this production was, like Uncle Vanya, based on a new translation, the goals are clearly very different. Just as the seagulls’ ‘natural’ habitat has changed, today we have numerous prisms through which we can view Chekhov’s writings. This one offers a colourful portrayal of character psychology and a chance to focus on the chaos that ensues when Chekhov places them in a vortex of life, love and art incessantly colliding.

The play runs until 16th July and still offers ‘Pay what you can Tuesdays’. If you happen to see a dead seagull on the road by Dalston Junction, take it as a sign ….

About Robert Cotter

Is a freelance writer based in Hackney.

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