Categories: Theatre, York Theatre Royal
Helen Wilson’s production of ‘The Seagull’ is a labour of love. A love for Anton Chekhov’s work that has seen her direct, over the course of a decade, all four of his major plays for the York Settlement Community Players. It’s a love that has given the city something very beautiful and accomplished in this conclusion to the quartet, with an engaging ensemble and considered, intelligent management that has made no attempt to change the essence of the original, but rather to draw out the charm and comedy that is often overlooked, using Michael Frayn’s 1988 translation.
Love does not, of course, turn out so well for the characters in what is believed to be Chekhov’s first play of the four. The action quickly establishes for us who loves who and who is unlikely to be loved back, the dialogue giving the cast an opportunity to establish their roles.
Medvedenko, played to every capable inch as the disciplined, boring, poor, but hopelessly infatuated, pedagog by Samithi Sok, is in love with Masha, the daughter of Shamrayev, Sorin’s steward, and his wife Polina.
Taking the role of Masha is Lucy May Orange, who is so delicious she deserves her own spin-off show. Trigorin summed her up in his book inscription, ‘For Masha, who doesn't know where she came from or why she goes on living’. She’s every wet-Wednesday, nobody-loves-me and teenage-melancholic-crush anyone ever had; sheathed in mourning black and drowning her sorrows in vodka, the only man she has her sights set on is not Medvedenko, but Konstantin, the son of renowned actress Arkardina. However, in her no nonsense approach, Masha is the only one who understands that Konstantin is depressed, and whilst we can laugh at her excessive melancholy, in doing so we are laughing at our own existential questions of meaning and purpose.
Konstantin, played by wonderful Ben Turvill, struggling to find his voice as a writer in the shadow of his mother, is, in turns, impatient, self-defeating, compassionate, lacking confidence in his own abilities and tormented by his need for love, attention and affection. He is unusually hard on himself, allowing his successes and disappointments to reflect his feelings about himself and shatter his self-worth. At the outset, he has no idea that Masha yearns for him, and is in love with Nina, a young daughter of a wealthy landowner. Konstantin’s depression and his self-paralysis that leads to his inevitable destruction is not an easy descent for an actor to make or an audience to watch, demanding a wide breadth of emotion, and much of the understanding of the rest of the play rests upon his realistic portrayal of an anguished psyche. It is a huge responsibility and Turvill handles it tremendously well.
It is Livy Potter’s task to bring us the complex Nina, and she does it with a gentle, understated accomplishment. Nina ‘s mother died when she was young, leaving her inheritance to her father who then remarried and signed the money over to his new wife, making Nina’s future security uncertain. Her father is a cruel man and she can only visit Sorin’s family when she is confident he will not find out. She is, at first, in love with Konstantin, but perhaps because she secretly hopes that through her connections with his mother she will fulfil her dream of being an actress herself, and her seemingly naïve, idealistic willingness to take risks becomes seen as something more ambitious and less ingénue when she turns her attentions to the established and celebrated writer Trigorin. Nina’s deterioration emotionally and physically in Act IV is a challenging one for a young actor, but Livy executes it in a way that is commendable.
Trigorin is the lover of Arkardina, and, like her, is a member of the elite intelligensia and artistic community. He works hard, holds high standards for himself, but does not connect his efforts, disappointments or failures to his sense of self-esteem in any way. Dutiful loyalty, erring on reluctant acquiescence, quickly gives way to unfaithfulness when he is flattered by the attentions shown by the youthful Nina, using the excuse that he lost out on romantic experiences in his younger days because he was so busy establishing himself as a writer. He is a disinclined celebrity, preferring a day of quiet fishing by the lake to the philosophising and parlour games, and an obsessive observer of the outside world, his ever present notebook the repository of jottings for future tales yet, remarkably oblivious to the emotional worlds of those around him, he is also the one who ultimately plays God with the hearts of Arkardina, Konstantin and Nina. Ben Sawyer takes on the daedal Trigorin with a subtle mastery.
Arkardina, played by Stephanie Heap, has the potential to be a monster of a character. She is the archetypal grand, melodramatic star with a hugely inflated ego; vain, stubborn, fiercely competitive, obsessed with holding on to her beauty and youth, not in any way interested in perfecting her technique, craft, self-knowledge or in challenging herself. She is only interested in the adoration, status, and envy from others that she accumulates from the attention she receives as a result of being a performer, but Chekhov also grants her a more human side that stops her from being one dimensional no matter how badly she is behaving. She is selfish as a mother, crushing Konstantin’s creative spirit and unable to show affection to him whilst doting on her lover beyond anything he deserves, and yet…the odd phrase, the frantic cry for help when Sorin became ill, the restrained thrown line, suggests that somewhere, deep inside, is a woman who is going to be devastated only moments after the material of the text ends.
There’s little wonder Masha is as miserable as she is with the parents she has! Paul Joe Osborne is suitably argumentative and surly in his role as Shamrayev, paying scant attention to Polina and unsympathetic to his daughter and her admirer (later husband), whilst fawning over Arkardina’s fame, wealth and classy connections. Polina is as woebegone as her daughter and the ever wonderful Elizabeth Elsworth dredges out every last drop of dolorous unhappiness, but her abject misery comes from a place of care for the two people she truly loves; her daughter whom she sees compromising in a loveless marriage whilst longing for Konstantin, and her own beloved Dorn, the local doctor, who is distant towards her, but whom she trusts.
Maurice Crichton is such a measured and gifted actor that his portrayal of Dorn is a joy to watch. Clearly once a ladies’ man, Dorn has known Sorin, Arkardina, their families and neighbours for many years, quietly witnessing their lives unfold, confidant to most, and a fluid outside observer to events. His neutral distance from the action allows him to take part without taking any personal risk, representing Chekhov's role as playwright and ourselves as audience. He has affections for Polina, does not appear to be in love with her, but does nothing to put her down, soothing her in her sorrows and showing a gentle, compassionate presence to others. He respects Konstantin’s talents and attempts to diffuse the effect of Arkardina’s unkind words on this depressed young man, listens understandingly to Masha regaling her longing for Konstantin’s love, and at the close of the play he is the one who assesses when the time is right to break their games with the knowledge of the tragedy that has occurred. It is Dorn that has one of the loveliest lines, helplessly suggesting to Masha that it must be the lake that is making everyone feel so romantic; it’s Chekhov’s equivalent of joking, “There must be something in the water around here”.
Sorin, the estate owner, brother to Arkardina and uncle to Konstantin, is, like Dorn, a patient listener and confidant, but he is different in a very significant way – he involves himself when he personally has something to risk. He is eager to champion both his sister and his nephew, but his health is deteriorating and he is acutely aware of his own dreams of love and success as a writer that didn’t see fruition. Glyn Morrow draws out his wisdom, nostalgia and wistful moments as Sorin sees so much of himself in Konstantin and asks his sister to be more aware of the young man’s fragility and lack of confidence.
The ensemble wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Annie Chave. Officially listed as the stage manager for the production, she does this duty by cleverly mopping up the roles of the cook, the maid and the workman; a device that allows her to do her task in full visibility, but also gives her the occasional line and non-verbal reaction where Chave exhibits a natural comedy flair that is delightful to watch.
As the play flows like the lake it is centred around, pastoral summer days of futuristic plays featuring ‘souls of the world’ slowly give up their charm to jealousy, humiliations and yearnings for more. Konstantin’s presentation of the shot seagull to Nina signals the decaying of their friendship, but unwittingly gives Trigorin a way into the star struck Nina’s head.
"A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake. She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she's happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom. Like this seagull."
Nina enthralled by the spell of his rhetoric and his fame gushes, “My Dream!”, and the parochial estate life irretrievably unravels from thereon in. The lake has, as Konstantin would have it, disappeared into the ground.
Wilson has left out none of the trappings that come with staging a production of ‘The Seagull’. The comparisons with Hamlet, the variations between the way that artists approach their lives and creative capacities; the disparate understanding of ‘needs’ that people have and which ones hold the power – for some their need is basic…love, survival, money and respect, but for others, ‘need’ is a much loftier notion of philosophy, art or literature; the piles of luggage at the beginning of Act III, signifying the change of decision since the end of Act II, the passage of time through shifts in scenery and Chekhovian portrayal of the uncertain happenings that determine our lives; questions of self worth, the existential queries of purpose and meaning, and the unrequited loves that bind the characters so closely.
The symbols too are there. The seagull, at first full of freedom and carefree security, moving through dependence, prophecy and ultimately destruction. The lake, ebbing and flowing as a place of reflection, respite, escape, sense of home, curiosity, childhood exploration and a place of lost love where it feels that the life source will dry up and disappear, and the weather, bright summer days becoming ever more stormy as change evolves.
Graham Sanderson as set designer has made very disciplined, astute choices in his staging that serve to make the entire focus the emotions of the characters with no distractions or excess baggage. Everything on set has a purpose and intention for being there. Wardrobe crew Helen Taylor and Judith Ireland have been equally streamlined in their approach. Nina’s change from virginal white to a more sophisticated outfit in grey echoes her development as her eyes are opened to a world beyond the rural idyll but she also becomes aware of the darker things in life, and Arkardina goes from passionate, all consuming red, to an identical costume in dark green as she accepts that retaining her lover means sharing him with another; they are well thought through changes that emphasise the stark, broken course of events.
One of the triumphs of Chekhov's writing in The Seagull is his unbiased depiction of the characters. The story isn’t easily divided into good versus evil or hero versus villain. Chekhov attempts to portray people as they are in real life, a little good and a little bad, sometimes right, and sometimes wrong, and this has been achieved so well in Wilson’s production. It’s a play that was first performed in 1896, yet the themes are as fresh and relevant to our world today; a world that is tussling with a greater understanding of mental health and its impacts, a world in which the creative world still struggles to find place, meaning and understanding, and a world in which love in all its many guises builds, breaks and bends.
My congratulations to Helen Wilson on completing her own journey through Chekhov’s four plays, on bringing such a nuanced production of ‘The Seagull’ to York, and to all the cast and creatives who worked on it.
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