The Seagull, RSC at The Barbican
In recent years, there has been an attempt to reinvent Chekhov. No longer is he seen as the king of dark Russian tragedy but as a comic writer who finds despair in the comic nature of everyday life: however, devotees of tradition should rest assured, this is Chekhov as it used to be, where the comedy is very much in the background.
The play is about a young man, Konstantin, yearning to be a writer and to create a new form of theatre. Part of his motivation is to emerge from the shadow of his mother, Arkadina, a successful actress, and part of it is to attract the love of Nina, the daughter of a local landowner, aspiring actress and the seagull of the title. But Nina is infatuated with Trigorin, Arkadina's lover and eventually shacks up with him.
Anyone's who ever seen Harry Enfield's spoiled teenager Kevin will recognise John Light's Konstantin. Constantly screaming and ranting when he doesn't get his way, shouting abuse at his mother and his dramatic 'suicide' attempt all point to a character that's desperate to get some attention. The only trouble is that Konstantin is supposed to be 25 and one can't really associate this person with his pubescent rantings as someone who is capable of any sort of creativity. It's only in the final scene with Nina that one senses the depth of his tragedy.
Justine Waddell, on the other hand, is a strongly sympathetic Nina. She's almost gauche in her enthusiasm for Konstantin's preposterous play and her infatuation with Trigorin. Her appearance in the last scene, after two years' absence, is genuinely touching as she reveals both how much she has changed and, with her last desperate howl of love for Trigorin, how little.
The real standout performance is Penelope Wilton's Arkadina. This is a portrayal of a wonderfully heartless woman secure in her selfishness but deeply insecure about her age and the loss of her beauty. It's her callous dismissal of her son's play that leads the way to his death and although she gets most of the comic lines, there's a real sense of despair in this portrayal. And two old RSC hands, Richard Pasco as Arkadina's brother Sorin and Richard Johnson as the doctor Dorn are two of the more sympathetic characters - both give well-judged performances.
But Nigel Terry's Trigorin is more problematical. For one thing, the actor is about 15 years too old for the part he's playing. This doesn't normally matter (the same could be said of several actors in this production), but it seems to have inspired Terry to play Trigorin with such vigour, as if to belie his grey hairs, that his performance seems almost a parody.
Adrian Noble's production is wonderfully paced and the last scene is satisfactorily gloomy. There are some rather clichéd touches, however - do we really need to hear the sound of birds just as Konstantin describes Nina as a seagull?
Not a perfect Chekhov then, but well worth seeing and with enough good touches and strong performances, particularly Wilton's, to keep most Chekhovians happy.