Dublin Theatre Festival 2016: The Seagull
All the world’s a stage in The Seagull
Shifting time forward one hundred and twenty years to today, its location to rural Ireland and playing around with the gender of a major character, The Corn Exchange's reimagining of Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ by Michael West and Annie Ryan, is a peculiarly fascinating production. Peculiar because it’s pure Chekhov, all drama darling, all extremely intense, where nothing happens while everything happens. Yet it's all happening today, here in Ireland, and it almost looks like a slice of life. A production where self-obsession and woe-is-me rarely looked so comically good. If its tragedy doesn’t look near as good, especially at the end, and it takes a Chekhovian long time to get there, ‘The Seagull’ is a journey well worth taking, one featuring some outstanding performances from an incredible cast performing at the top of their game.
First produced in 1896, West and Ryan’s version remains essentially true to the spirit of the original, even though the cast has been reduced and the gender change opens up some fascinating insights and possibilities. When the bold and beautiful bohemians come to bemoan their lot to the soft spoken Sorin, a retired lawyer living by a lake in the countryside, the family visit takes some unexpected turns. Misery loves company and everyone has a miserable story to tell. Unrequited love, a life unlived, the pains of the writer, the actor, the theatre maker all compete for centre stage. Constance is no fun, being a super serious theatre maker striving for new forms so she can impress, or criticise, her mother Arkadina, a, dare we say it, aging actress, but one who could surely play a fifteen-year-old if she had to. Drinking the last dregs from the fountain of youth, Arkadina has brought her latest accessory along, the hugely successful writer Trigorin. But when Nina enters the fray it all becomes even more messy. Add in a doctor who’s still sexy at fifty-five, a dog that won’t stop barking and even more unrequited love and the odds are it will all likely end in tears, perhaps providing Arkadina with her greatest tragic role yet.
Renowned for their impressionistic and naturalistic qualities, Chekhov’s plays might look random and natural, but there’s an astutely organising mind at work creating a delicate balancing act. West and Ryan maintain that impressionistic and naturalistic sense of events and characters incredibly well, against which Paul O'Mahony's simple yet evocative set design suggests rich layers of subtext. Yet the blend of, and shifts between 'The Seagull's' comic and tragic dimensions is not always the smoothest. Unquestionably, ‘The Seagull’s’ comic dimensions are wonderfully realised and revealing, but its tragic aspects often don’t carry the same conviction. Ultimately they place too much weight on the end, bringing it all home with more of a whimper than a bang, despite the obvious bang.
Chekhov’s plays are also renowned for heralding in a new standard of acting, and in that regards director Annie Ryan has remained exceedingly faithful, eliciting some astonishing performances with a cast in a class of their own. Steven Mullen as the lovelorn teacher Medvendenko, and Imogen Doel as his love interest Masha, a desperate woman with a love interest all of her own, are both excellent. As are Rory Keenan as the writer Trigorin, and Genevieve Hulme-Beamen as the bored and ambitious Nina. Anna Healy’s, Paulina is always strong, and Louis Lovett’s, Doctor Eugene Dorn is a strutting delight. Jane McGrath as the impetuous Constance is a revelation, with her haunting rendition of her own composition ‘Scrap Shell’ being show stoppingly good. As are Derbhile Crotty as the actress Eileen Arkadina, a vicious delight channelling both Margo Channing and Norma Desmond, and Stephen Brennan as the soft spoken Sorin, delivering a truly delightful performance.
The Corn Exchange’s ‘The Seagull’ offers a performance about performance, both the theatrical kind and the day to day kind we undertake in the name of being ourselves. With grand entrances and exits, it may speak to the vanities and fears of the artist and to the conventions that govern theatre, but it also speaks to a much wider range of human concerns. It’s certainly Chekhov, but it’s uniquely West and Ryan. Clever, funny, with excellent comic moments, ‘The Seagull’ might ask you to endure, hang on and have faith at times, but it’s a request you should wholeheartedly heed. With a stunning cast delivering stunning performances, ‘The Seagull’ says so much by seeming to say so very little in a delightful production which is so, "sure you know yourself."
‘The Seagull’ by Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Michael West and Annie Ryan, produced by The Corn Exchange and Dublin Theatre Festival, runs at The Gaiety Theatre as part of The Dublin Theatre Festival until October 16th