Perhaps it was a mistake for Steven Pimlott to stage Chichester's new production of The Seagull in the wide-open space of the main house rather than in the adjoining Minerva studio. In Chekhov's dramatic work, almost all of his characters live in closed boxes of one sort or another, both literal and figurative. They meet and clash because they cannot get away from one another. This unceasing claustrophobic atmosphere and how the characters accomplish (or don't) their escape provides the bulk of the dramatic tension.
As with Loveday Ingram's Chichester production of Three Sisters, two years ago, this Seagull demonstrates that the Festival Theatre stage is not conducive to fanning the simmering passions underlying the multiple triangular relationships. Alison Chitty's otherwise excellent water-based installation design for this year's Venetian-themed season now seems to constrain the action, rather than liberate it. There is little sense of Sorin's estate, nor of the lake upon which it's set. Nor was I impressed with the stuffed gull, overhanging the stage as a Damien Hirst-style exhibit. In The Seagull, the symbolism is in the text.
This is essentially a play constructed around unsatisfied longing. Konstantin (Ed Stoppard) longs to be both a successful, radical writer and the lover of skittish Nina (Alexandra Moen). Nina hankers for a career as an actress and a relationship with Trigorin (Philip Quast), whose defining characteristics are his drive to write compulsively, day and night, and a deep concern for his place in the literary canon. And so on, and so forth as Konstantin's kindly uncle, Sorin, might say. He, himself, longs for 'a life' after 28 years as a civil servant.
This new version by Phyllis Nagy also, annoyingly combines elegant Chekhovian language with anachronistic contemporary references. Konstantin opens his play-within-a play, with 'It's showtime', while another character espouses 'That's crap!' Do we really want to hear this in Chekhov?
Of the performances, the otherwise excellent Stoppard gives an effective, if somewhat one-dimensional account, of the intense, marginal-psychotic and Oedipal Konstantin, and particularly impresses in his scenes with Sheila Gish's self-obsessed, reptilian diva, Arkadina. Gish, sporting a dramatic black eye patch, delivers a magnificent performance, sharpening her claws on her son and young Nina, while trying to retain the interest of her lover Trigorin. Moen sparkles with the life force of hope and aspiration early in the play, thus providing her return - two years later, as a disillusioned, unhappily jilted lover and second-rate actress confined to winter rep - all the more poignant.
Above all, Desmond Barrit (whose Shylock so impressed) gives the star turn of the evening. He has a real feeling for the doleful and modest Sorin and conveys so effectively those long and languid rural-Russian days and nights. And what a treat to see him sharing the stage with this season's other standout, Michael Feast as the disturbingly, uncaring doctor, Dorn.
Despite some inconstancy in style and approach, the performances empower Chichester's final, main-house production of the season so that this Seagull flies high, straight and true.
- Stephen Gilchrist