As the sell-out To Kill a Mockingbird opens at the Barbican after a ten-month UK tour, the run of incredible theatre at Regent’s Park continues with The Seagull. This is the Open Air Theatre’s first venture into Chekhov and director Matthew Dunster is doing for this playwright what this theatre has become so well-known for doing for Shakespeare. Working with this new version by Torben Betts, Dunster has made Chekhov into edge-of-seat entertainment, accessible, enjoyable and profoundly natural.
A stand-out performance is given by Matthew Tennyson as the heartbreakingly thwarted writer Konstantin Trepliov. His intelligent interpretation of this tormented soul whose mother-from-hell, Janie Dee’s Irina Arcadina, will not let him outshine her is powerful and moving. Alex Robertson as the vain, weak, nasty egomaniac but, sadly, talented Boris Trigorin who wreaks such havoc upon this family at Peter Sorin’s country estate is charismatic in true Chekhov style. We hate him while he holds us in his thrall. Or at least we women do. Literate men watching this might feel Chechov’s original intention of the more complex artistic-type male has been subverted, but Robertson shows us the true malice of such characters who do exist everywhere, causing havoc among with the gullible women they seduce and their unfortunate families. Sabrina Bartlett brings light and truth to Nina Zarechnaya, the wannabe famous actress eventually caught short by the quotidien realities of life on tour, but who ultimately is a survivor.
The play opens on Sorin’s estate. Here a word about Jon Bausor’s most extraordinarily beautiful set. It surpasses anything else I’ve seen there, even the Sound of Music, for sheer bucolic beauty, especially the first half when the stage is a lawn of mossy green, with a real lake in which some of the characters swim, naked. It blends in seamlessly with the surrounding flora of Regent’s Park. The finishing piece is a huge mirror which slants upwards across the entire stage, giving us a bird’s eye, or seagull’s eye, view of the action from above as well as the more usual view from the front or sides. It truly enchants and makes literal the many layers and depths, hidden and not so hidden, of Chekhov’s early masterpiece.
The action begins with a production on stage of Konstantin’s own play, written in an innovative style. Nina is the “soul of the world” but her monologue is rudely interrupted by Irina, who heartlessly destroys her son’s work in front of a distinguished audience that includes Trigorin, a writer her son is anxious to impress. In a premonition of what is to come, Konstantin later shoots a seagull, which he presents as a gift to the appalled Nina. It later appears again, stuffed and soulless. Irina is not concerned for her son, and even at the end we see the merest flickering of anxiety. Her abiding passion is to secure possession as her lover of Trigorin, which she succeeds horribly in doing even as he lusts palpably after some of the younger women on stage. Finally, we see all the characters two years on. Some have moved on, others are simply stuck. All have tragedies in their own way, and amid the glorious fecundity of nature we are left to ponder on chance, and how our own failings of character and our strengths can determine our own luck. Talent is good but it is often not enough. One of the best moments is when Irina, the successful but ageing actress, attempts to show Nina, the young actress just starting out, how to walk on stage like a young, attractive female star. Suddenly before us we see the middle-aged woman as the flirty teen, and the young Nina as awkward, faded downtrodden, disappointed and, worst of all, old. This little scene shows perfectly the power of the mind, the power of deception and self-deception. It tells us so much of what we need to know about this play, and is so helpful in terms of how to “be” in the world, and how not to be, whatever the temptation. I could watch The Seagull at the Open Air Theatre time and again, and each time there would still be more to learn. Matthew Tennyson’s mother must be the proudest woman in the world.
Review by Ruth Gledhill
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. The first of Chekhov’s great works, The Seagull is celebrated as one of the most important plays of the nineteenth century. “Young love, enchanting, poetic love, the sort that transports us to the land of dreams that’s only happiness life has to offer us“.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
27th June to 11th July
Monday to Saturday 7.45pm
Thursday and Saturday 2.15pm
Friday 26th June 2015