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Friday 30th November 2007
Theatre Review | THE SEAGULL | RSC @ New London Theatre [transfer]

Production (transfer): The Seagull
Playwright: Anton Chekhov
Producer: Royal Shakespeare Company
Venue: New London Theatre
Address: Drury Lane, London WC2B 5PW
Box Office: +44 (0)844 412 4654
Dates: 21 November 2007 - 12 January 2008 (in repertoire with King Lear)
Opened: 27 November 2007
Buy Theatre Tickets from Ticketmaster
Reviewed by Joanna Bacon

If I translate Chekhov's The Seagull, I will call it Gull. Firstly, it gives a clearer idea of the gull in context. I think the gull must live on the lake adjacent to Sorin's estate, across from which Nina's people live (she is Nina Zarechnaya after all; 'za rekoy' in Russian is something like 'over the river'). And I like that 'gull' is an archaic English noun to mean a dupe, someone easily deceived or cheated, as well as a verb meaning to cheat, trick or deceive someone foolish or unwary. The play is awash with gulls and gulling.

However, I haven't (as yet) translated this play, and actually in this case I am not one hundred per cent sure who has. There is a partial interview in the programme with director Trevor Nunn, which suggests a literal translation and 'some other research' undertaken by the RSC providing him and the company with 'all the understanding needed of alternative linguistic possibilities'. Does this mean they all fought out what the actual line would be in rehearsal? Otherwise, why not attribute it to Nunn (or Nunn et al, if necessary), and publish it in the normal way? Certainly I would love to look at the translation Nunn uses. I was very taken with it, the first scenes being the clearest in terms of Chekhov's story and establishment of character that I have ever seen, and funny, as Chekhov intended.

The design is beautiful, giving a sense of the space on the estate and the desperate emptiness in those who long for something else, and yet absolutely evoking the qualities of claustrophobia that the country retreat brings out in the city-dweller. The sound design is perfect and does not miss a chance to subtly enhance the action. The wood-pigeon coos as Sorin tries to convince Konstantin his mother adores her son; a cacophony of bird-song rises as Dorn and Polina kiss; crickets rub their back legs together as Arkadina relentlessly insults her son during his play; a gull denotes 'an angel passed by', and music is used brilliantly in and between acts.

This detail woven in and around the action complements the complexity of the relationships on stage, again pointed up by the excellence of this translation. Nina's journey here from silly but sincere girl longing for fame, finding some satisfaction from within herself through acting in the provinces, via a disastrous affair, has never been clearer or more beautifully suggested.

The acting is uniformly marvellous and it seems invidious to pick people out, but I must. Gerald Kyd's Trigorin is, by turns, devastatingly sophisticated, shallow and disappointed. Buoyed by his fame, aroused by chatting up a young girl with a massive, self-absorbed monologue about his compulsion to write, grounded by his ability to see he is not a great talent, he cannot be happy. Arkadina ultimately fails Konstantin dismally, but she understands Trigorin and knows what he needs.

Of course, Arkadina acts all the time, but there is real pain present, even though she is unable to function properly. In fact, Frances Barber's excellent Arkadina wants the best of both worlds, but Konstantin won't give it to her. The audience may think some things are a bit false as Konstantin thinks the theatre is but Arkadina's pain is real, and Konstantin is as self-absorbed as she is. As she bathes her son's wound and begs him not to hurt Trigorin it is heart-rending that her perception is skewed and her love too. No one is interested in her pain, and she is what she is in order to survive rather than despair. We dupe and gull ourselves as well as others.

This is a great production of a great translation of Chekhov's first masterpiece.

Joanna Bacon 2007

 
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