Review of The Seagull x 2

Reflecting on 2023 I decided that after doing the Ring Cycle in Brisbane in early December my second big Arts moment was attending two performances of The Seagull by Anton Chekhov; the first in London by the National Theatre and the second in Sydney by the Sydney Theatre Company (STC)..  It is not that I am a big Chekov fan; just that one of the actors in the London performance was Emelia Clarke, aka Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons.  (And she was just as stunning on the stage as Nina.)

The plot has been described as resembling a modern soap opera due to the complexity of its melodrama.  A young woman, Nina, is an aspiring actress desperate for fame, keen to escape from a boring, ordinary life.  A young man, Konstantin, dreams obsessively about the girl, Nina, whom he loves. A successful writer, Trigorin, doesn’t feel fulfilled by his success and doesn’t know why.  He becomes romantically involved with Nina. And an actress, Irina Arkadina, doesn’t want the times to change. She is the mother of Konstantin and the partner of Trigorin.  This love triangle and the characters’ pursuit of their artistic endeavours is replicated several times in the plot.  When the cast of ten come together in a remote rural home set in a country estate their dreams are destroyed, their hopes smashed and their hearts broken. And when it finally becomes clear that there’s nowhere else to turn, they turn on each other.

The London show was a naturalist production, stripped of scenery and props, and the actors mostly performed sitting down.  Besides Clarke the other stand-out was Indira Varma, gloriously blithe and effortless as the selfish actress and mother-from-hell, Arkadina. She was wickedly comic as she lured her wavering lover, Trigorin, back from the affair with Nina.

The contrast with Sydney could not have been starker.  Arkadina was played by Australia icon Sigrid Thorton in a much more dead pan fashion.  This short monologue by Sigrid provides an interesting take on the play.

Andrew Upton, husband of Cate Blanchett and, with Cate, a former Co-Director of the STC is the play’s Australian translator.  He too has provided a short monologue about the play.  He was at the preview performance we saw and was smiling gratefully during the rapturous curtain call reception by the audience.  This was three days before three actors wore Palestinian keffiyehs during the curtain call of its opening night performance of The Seagull.  The protest became somewhat of a tragedy with two of the Directors resigning and various sponsors cancelling donations.

The play was first performed in 1896 and its first night was a famous disaster.  The audience booed it at the curtain call with such ferocity that Chekov ran away and slept overnight in a park.   Chekov suffered from weak lungs and within 12 months contracted tuberculosis and was dead at 44.  Some authors ruin their own plays.  The Seagull is a rare example of a play that killed the author.

Samuel Beckett, one of Chekov’s heirs, once said “nothing is funnier than unhappiness” and that sums up The Seagull perfectly.  At both performances the audience laughed throughout.  Afterwards on the way home after the second performance I kept thinking why the title?    The play is set on a countryside estate in Russia, specifically on Sorin’s provincial estate and farm. Despite the title, the play’s setting is not near the sea.  So, the bird that appears at the end of the play cannot actually be a seagull.

A final irony by Chekov?

This post first appeared on LinkedIn on 18 January 2024.



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