At the National Theatre last night (27 June 2006, previews from 17 June), Katie Mitchell’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull opened in the NT Lyttelton, where she had a critical hit on the same stage with Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 2003.

In Martin Crimp’s new pared-down version, Juliet Stevenson and Ben Whishaw star as Arkadina and Konstantin respectively, in a cast that also features Hattie Morahan (as Nina), Angus Wright, Mark Bazeley, Sandy McDade and Justin Salinger as well as Michael Gould, Sean Jackson, Liz Kettle (See News, 11 Apr 2006).

The majority of overnight critics thought the Chekhov classic was too scaled down to promote any connection with or sympathy for the characters, and didn’t care for the theoretical treatment of the text. However, one reviewer said Mitchell’s production found “an ardency, an urgency and a clarity that's all too often missing in dustier, more respectful versions.”

  • Michael Coveney on - “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… 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… 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.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard - De Jongh was unimpressed with “Crimp's cut or rather truncated, maimed and technically inept version of Chekhov's early masterpiece”. As for the performances: “Juliet Stevenson's mildly amusing Arkadina, that once-famous actress, whose career is left dangling at the end of second-string touring dates, scales the heights of egotistical petulance as she flatters Mark Bazeley's unduly boring Trigorin into sexual submission. Sadly Miss Stevenson never suggests there may be more to Arkadina than shallowness… Ben Whishaw makes a wilfully cool and composed Konstantin… He no more matures or changes than does Hattie Morahan’s dazzled but insufficiently harrowed Nina. Only Arkadina's decrepit brother, Gawn Grainger's Sorin, rings the bell of Chekhovian conviction... Anyone who comes fresh to the play should be warned they are not seeing some radical reinterpretation, but a pallid version of the real thing.” Despite his grievances, De Jongh maintained faith in the director: “Mitchell's Seagull does, though, generate an intriguing, desolate atmosphere… Mitchell is too fine a director altogether to fail Chekhov. Adrift in vast, decayed, dusky spaces, her actors do still capture that Chekhovian sense of people lost in private, lonesome reveries.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian - “With mise en scène being substituted for meaning, the sound you hear all evening is of baby being ejected with bathwater… here theatrical effect takes precedence over everything. Konstantin's play, which his mother so rudely interrupts, may be bad but it is about something interesting: the conflict between spirit and matter. Here, however, with Nina whispering her words into a microphone, it is virtually inaudible. And the great scene where Trigorin seduces Nina with his profession of literary inadequacy is shifted from outdoors to indoors and interrupted every few seconds by banging doors and scurrying servants. As a result, you lose any sense of his frayed charisma or her star-struck naivete… A few good things survive. Juliet Stevenson's Arkadina is richly condescending towards Nina…. Sandy McDade's Masha is full of lovelorn desperation… And Gawn Grainger conveys Sorin's anger at his sense of unfulfilment.” Nevertheless, decided Billington, this Seagull “is director's theatre at its most indulgent, in which the play, as Chekhov wrote it, is definitely not the thing.”

  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph - Running counter to his peers, Cavendish was thoroughly won over by Mitchell’s interpretation. “Purists will no doubt flock to grumble at the liberties she (Mitchell) and adaptor Martin Crimp have taken, but if you can forgive it the occasional overeager excess, their combined effort gives the play an ardency, an urgency and a clarity that's all too often missing in dustier, more respectful versions… Mitchell is the high priestess of fluttering neurosis and ill-suppressed hysteria… There are irritations - the needless alteration of the final lines being the worst offender. But you're left persuaded that, ostentatious though Mitchell's signature is as a director, it always serves to underwrite the genius of Chekhov.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell