Ian Rickson signs off as artistic director of the Royal Court with Chekhov’s play about actors and writers that highlights the pitfalls of celebrity and the risk of new forms in the most compelling psychological tragi-comedy of the modern theatre.
When the Court produced an all-star West End version in the mid 1960s, it was hard to see (to me, at any rate) how the piece plugged in to the new work ethos. 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.
The first act offers no Chekhovian solace of mood or atmosphere. Konstantin’s play is performed in the sombre dark of the country lakeside. Not just Masha is in mourning for her life. When he translated the play, Tom Stoppard was adamant that indeed there is no real talent in the “decadent” drama of absurd statements and the listed bestiary.
But it’s the attempt that matters and 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 Arkadina does nothing for anyone. Her screech of being an actress, not a banker, is borne out when she leaves the staff with one rouble between them at the end.
Nina is drawn into the theatre for equally wrong, but different, reasons. Carey Mulligan implies the dismal tragedy though I always feel this play works best when an interval is taken between the third and fourth act, allowing for the two year gap in time. There is no equivocation in the production’s laying of blame on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s smiling, urbane Trigorin. We are never quite sure about this. Chekhov’s writing is non-judgmental, which leaves an audience with all the decisions to make.
One thing for sure, however, is that Trigorin converts the metaphor of the casual destruction of the seagull into a romantic cause, and the shock is considerable. Hildegard Bechtler’s design, beautifully lit by Peter Mumford, opens up into a white, antiseptic country estate with clean lintels and window frames and peeling wallpaper. The costumes look entirely lived in, none more so than the crumpled uniform of retired country judge Sorin (Peter Wight). Art Malik’s slightly callous Dorn is a doctor with a womanising reputation, and Pearce Quigley’s battered teacher, Medvedenko, trying to make ends meet on twenty-three roubles a month, is pathetically in thrall to Masha.
Katherine Parkinson’s Masha presents a jumble of sorry instincts and executes brilliantly that strange moment when one of her legs has simply gone to sleep. Paul Jesson is wonderfully funny and pent up as the frustrated estate manager. There is a spookily ominous soundtrack by Stephen Warbeck and a curiously muffled gunshot at the end, when a crack of doom is really needed. But this is a superb production, unafraid to leave emotional ends raw and jangling.