There is nothing much wrong with Trevor Nunn’s production of The Seagull for the RSC which has arrived (with King Lear) in the New London after touring to Singapore, Melbourne, Wellington, Auckland, New York, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. But nor does it set the pulse racing.
Nunn insists that the new English text is not a version but a translation, and a close study of the programme with a microscope yields the information that this text has been “made” (from a literal translation by Noah Birksted-Breen) by the director “in consultation with the company in rehearsal”. Which may explain why it has no particular flavour or pungency.
The New London is a good venue for the company (there are rumours that it might become a permanent home). Once you negotiate the conference centre-style foyers and stairways, the interior has an epic vastness that Nunn and designer Christopher Oram exploit to the full. It’s not as good as the Barbican, but it suits the RSC better than a West End house. And there’s a stronger focus on the stage and the acting than there was earlier this year in the Courtyard at Stratford-upon-Avon.
That opening was bedevilled and delayed by the freak knee injury sustained by Frances Barber in a bicycle accident on her way to rehearsal. She is back in full sail now as Arkadina, swooping beautifully in white onto the estate where her son Konstantin (Richard Goulding) is preparing his symbolist play as a love poem to the elements and to Nina (Romola Garai).
What I miss is what I take to be the bittersweet acidity of Chekhov’s humour in portraying the vanity of human wishes and the rift in this play between mother and son, ambition and achievement, hope and reality. The groundswell of Arkadina’s affair with Trigorin the novelist (Gerald Kyd) and his infatuation with Nina never seems to burst its banks. Nor does the two-year gap in the action, marking Nina’s decline, really come into play.
One strikingly toned-down performance since Stratford is that of Monica Dolan as the tragic Masha, less desperately dipsomaniac but still heart-breaking, while Jonathan Hyde as the suave doctor Dorn and William Gaunt as Arkadina’s old brother Sorin (Gaunt shares the role with Ian McKellen) are so bedded into their roles it is hard to see any sharp edges. Which, again, is why the play trundles by so easily and unremarkably.
- Michael Coveney
NOTE: The following THREE-STAR review dates from June 2007 and this production’s original run in Stratford-upon-Avon, with Ian McKellen in the role of Sorin.
Trevor Nunn is a director about whom few theatregoers tend to be undecided. “Showy” tends to be one of the kinder charges levelled, and The Seagull, currently in repertory with King Lear, is unlikely to win critics over.
The Royal Court staged a marvellous, perfectly flighted production of the play earlier this year. Nunn's version certainly doesn't soar that high, but nor is it as earthbound as Katie Mitchell's benighted outing at the National last year.
Nunn’s is deft enough to find the humour, sometimes overlooked in English productions (pace Mitchell), with a relaxed and enjoyable turn from McKellen as Sorin. On the other hand, it also finds pain and pathos, most notably in the reunion between Konstantin and Nina - a genuinely moving performance by Romola Garai.
On the downside, it features some ugly roaring by Frances Barber which, given the delay of the press night, one would have thought would have been ironed out by now. Of course Arkadina is histrionic, but she is also pre-eminently aware of herself and would surely never behave with such a lack of finesse. This Seagull also touches down somewhat “overdue”, clocking in only slightly ahead of King Lear, a good three hours 20 minutes.
It is though undeniably lovely to look at and highly nuanced, a feature it shares with Lear, thanks to Christopher Oram's sparsely beautiful design and Neil Austin's superb lighting. As with Lear, it also features a detailed soundscape by Fergus O'Hare. I am minded though of advice by Dr Johnson - "wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out". For “passage” read embellishment, or idea.
Entertaining though McKellen's Sorin is - looking for all the world, like The Fast Show's Roly Birkin - I think the performance is too genial and misses his character's bitterness and sense of loss. Gerald Kyd, as Trigorin, seems similarly affected, lacking the ”sliver of ice in the heart” which all writers have, according to Graham Greene. Richard Goulding, in his RSC debut season, is a little over-excited and gesticulative as Konstantin, something which should improve.
Good, but no cigars.
- Pete Wood