The photograph in the programme of The Seagull shows Juliet Stevenson as Arkadina sitting determinedly at a grand piano next to her son, Ben Whishaw’s bendy-limbed Konstantin, who is lost in thought. A blurred image of Hattie Morahan as Nina gazes out of a window.
Shadows and ghosts, the other life of an afterlife: such is the mood of Katie Mitchell’s hauntingly perverse Chekhov, in a stark new version by Martin Crimp “based on a literal translation and critical commentary by Helen Rappaport”. The preparations for Konstantin’s play include a laborious tuning of the piano. Stagehands dash about everywhere. In the play proper (Chekhov’s, not Konstantin’s), no one dares raise his or her voice in truth or anger for fear of being overheard.
The result is a performance that is entirely submerged in its self-conscious reverie. The characters are more remote than immediate, and it's indicative of how an attitude towards the play has overtaken an engagement with it that the most striking sequence is that of a trance-like company tango to the distant music wafting across the lake. Significantly, the actors are recalling how once they danced, not dancing in the present tense.
Mitchell has done wonderful work on Chekhov before, notably her Uncle Vanya at the Young Vic, where the reality of torpor was excruciating to the point of embarrassment. But The Seagull simply doesn’t work as a theoretical exercise. Unless we believe in the crisis of Konstantin’s artistic ambitions, we are bound to lose interest.
Many years ago, director Philip Prowse shifted the emphasis to Nina’s ruination by placing the interval after the third act, marking the two-year time gap between her flight with Trigorin and the consequences of her disastrous metropolitan adventure. Mitchell follows suit, but without any comparable effect. Konstantin’s doodling at the keyboard has matured into a poignant Chopin recital while Nina has become unrecognisably hysterical.
In turning the play around on its axis – in Act One, we are at the back of the house, and this dining room, designed by Vicki Mortimer, serves also for Chekhov’s second act “croquet lawn” – Crimp and Mitchell might have been expected to zoom in on Konstantin’s suicide. But while they diffuse the terror and ambiguity of the final moments – we see Whishaw burning Konstantin’s play as if it was literally pestilential – the conventional dramaturgy remains intact.
The idea is to give us a “backstage” version of the play stripped of its veneer and atmosphere. This is to eject baby with bathwater, I’m afraid, and the overall acting is not so much drained of colour as totally devoid of it. Juliet Stevenson is neither sacred nor monstrous as Arkadina, an infuriatingly colourless performance that is not flattered in the shadowy silhouette of Chris Davey’s lighting design. Mark Bazeley is an equally anonymous Trigorin. Gawn Grainger mutters away disconsolately as the wheelchair-bound landowner Sorin. Only Sandy McDade defies the reverential gloom by spicing up her miserable Masha with some well-directed poisoned darts.
- Michael Coveney