Ian Rickson ends his artistic directorship of the Royal Court – the Sloane Square champion of new writing - with The Seagull, Chekhov’s classic drama about a tortured Russian writer trying to change the face of theatre, which opened last night (See News, 31 Jul 2006). The new version by Christopher Hampton also marks the final offering in the theatre’s year-long 50th anniversary season, and runs in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 17 March 2007.

Kristin Scott Thomas, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mackenzie Crook lead the cast. Ejiofor plays Trigorin, the literary lover of Scott Thomas’ ageing actress Madame Arkadina. Crook is Arkadina’s troubled son Konstantin in a cast that also features Carey Mulligan (as Nina), Katherine Parkinson (Masha), Peter Wight (Sorin), Pearce Quigley (Medviedenko), Paul Jesson (Shamraeff), Patrick Nolan (Jacob), Denise Black (Paulina) and Art Malik (Dorn).

Overnight critics were unanimous in their praise of Rickson’s production, all awarding four – or even five - stars. They were impressed with the believable performances of the cast, many of whom are better known as film and television actors, and said Christopher Hampton’s adaptation breathed new life into the play.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (4 stars) – “The great thing about Rickson’s revival, using a polished, pointed new version by Christopher Hampton, is that it battles its way to its conclusions, throws up a different array of acting styles and treats the play indeed as if it had been written yesterday…. newcomer Carey Mulligan – what a discovery she is! – imbues the speeches with such passion and translucent vitality that you fall as totally under her spell as does Mackenzie Crook’s famished looking Konstantin. Crook is utterly consumed by unhappiness, most of it brought on by his mother’s superficiality and vanity. She is shockingly cruel in her dismissal of the play’s pretentiousness, and Kristin Scott Thomas strikes more airy poses than a circus act of tumblers…. this is a superb production, unafraid to leave emotional ends raw and jangling.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (5 stars) – “It felt, while I watched with tell-tale moist eyes, that I was seeing this tragi-comedy for the first time. And Christopher Hampton's new version, with its stock of freshminted turns of phrase, enhances the sense of watching something new…. Kristin Scott Thomas' glacial Arkadina… and that reluctant lover of hers, Trigorin, to whom Chiwetel Ejiofor tenatively lends the air of an older toy-boy novelist rather than the usual, middle-aged literary gentleman, remain shadowy catalysts. They yield the central focus to Nina and Konstantin…. Scott Thomas's limitations serve only to make Crook's Konstantin appear more pathetically isolated and his transition from TV comedian to serious actor more amazing. What a blaze of desperate intensity he brings to his hopeless wooing of Mulligan's ardent, vulnerable Nina. Eyes fixed in a distant stare, shimmering with passion, the desolate, bearded Konstantin promises early on to kill himself and the threat for once sounds like an assured prophecy. I have never seen the last Nina-Konstantin encounter better done…. This enthralling The Seagull becomes, in Rickson's beautiful swan-song production, a drama of destruction.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (4 stars) - “While some might think it a conservative choice, it is an unusually apt one since Chekhov's play deals obsessively with new writing…. Christopher Hampton's new version is also sharp, fresh and comic…. Significantly, one of the delights of Rickson's production is that it is not necessarily the most famous names that come off best. Katherine Parkinson's brilliant Masha… Pearce Quigley's bumbling, awkward schoolteacher…. and both Peter Wight as the unfulfilled Sorin and Paul Jesson as his stage-struck estate manager have… emotional and physical weight…. Kristin Scott-Thomas is a very good Arkadina: less the familiar egotistic monster than a woman who theatricalises every emotion…. Mackenzie Crook's lean, hungry Konstantin also captures the character's vital change from aspiring mould-breaker to self-acknowledged literary failure. This is a fine production that brings out Chekhov's obsession with misdirected passion and the vanity of fame and ensures Rickson leaves the Court on a high note.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in the Times (4 stars) - “There’s no opportunistic casting here, least of all from Scott Thomas, whose performance as the diva, Arkadina, combines elegance and charisma with a narcissism as selfish as it’s serene. And, as directed by Rickson, The Seagull is as fresh as any modern play dealing with the emptiness of fame and the nature of creative art. At first Crook seemed nervous; but he went on to show the solemnity and single-mindedness of Konstantin, who is Arkadina’s neglected son and the aspiring dramatist… (Scott Thomas)’ prime gift is to affect a concern for others you sometimes know she doesn’t feel, sometimes wonder if she might just feel…. As her lover, the novelist Trigorin, Ejiofor is younger than usual for the part… For once you feel that this quiet, wistful man is sincere when he says that he adores the country, nature and fishing, and wishes he wasn’t the victim of a workaholism that’s just one of the many obsessions on view in the play…. Altogether, a fine, subtle revival.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent – “After eight years as its artistic director, Ian Rickson signs off at the Royal Court with this fine, valedictory production… Mackenzie Crook gives a touchingly truthful performance as Konstantin - his awkward, lanky body and injured eyes conveying the love-starved neediness of a youth who is mortified to lose both his neglectful mother and his starry-eyed girlfriend to an older, successful writer Trigorin. As the latter, Chiwetel Ejiofor seems far too straightforward and honourable - surely a writer who is as self-conscious as he is about the deadliness of turning the whole of life into ‘copy’ would be more calculatingly aware of his effect on Carey Mulligan's superlative Nina. As the leading lady in more senses than one, Kristin Scott Thomas is a magnificent, haughty, and impatient Arkadina: she's a mistress of the brilliantly timed put-down…. It's a wonderfully nimble and funny performance, darkening into black farce as she demonstrates the ignominious desperateness of her need for Trigorin.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “In allowing himself to direct a couple of classics at the end of his regime… Rickson reminds us of what a superb play director he is…. In Christopher Hampton’s new translation, Chekhov breaks your heart even as you laugh out loud. Rickson superbly captures the shifting moods, its mingling of the sublime and the ridiculous… Even the smallest roles are played with freshness, while the leading actors bring an extraordinary depth to their performances. Kristin Scott Thomas nails the vanity of the actress Arkadina, and it is hilarious to watch her patronising any female who happens to be younger than she is…. Mackenzie Crook… turns out to be the most moving Konstantin since Simon Russell Beale. His painful thinness, feverish energy and those haunted, hollow eyes constantly suggest a man nearing the end of his rope, and his final scene with his beloved Nina, touchingly played by Carey Mulligan is almost unbearably affecting…. there isn’t a single weak link in a show that must surely be West End bound.”

  • Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail – “Christopher Hampton dresses the bird impeccably with a translation that is unfashionably faithful to the original…. (Crook) is the quintessence of a tortured Russian writer…. It’s easy to get his anger with Kristin Scott Thomas as his self-absorbed actress mother… fearfully posh, she is absent-mindedly bossy, preoccupied with invisible matters and given to manipulative, melodramatic mood swings… a special mention must go to… Katherine Parkinson as the depressive maid, Masha, who is like a charity shop frump at a Vsersace party. Overall, Rickson can only be proud of his cast singing him on his way.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell