The Seagull (Tour – Oxford)

Chekhov and his first work for the stage, The Seagull, both have a reputation that precedes them; like a stately galleon the big writer and his major cannon of the theatre often set sail to bring faithful audiences flocking. You can forget all that if you want, as this is such a fresh, new translation and a very modern piece that its history doesn’t matter. Like so many great Shakespearean adaptations now the original work provides the solid foundation for the soaring flights of creative fancy of John Donnelly (writer), Blanche McIntyre (director) and Laura Hopkins (designer). More than blowing fresh wind in the sails their stunning interpretation invigorates The Seagull and finds many layers of meaning, reminding of us, contrastingly, of the complexities of Hamlet and the debt owed by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and others in the creation of truly awful non-maternal divas.

A weekend country house party, a young man on a doomed mission to impress his mother, a famous actress forever lying about her age, an impressionable young woman captivated by celebrity, a cynical doctor, an ailing uncle and most of them in love with the one person who cannot love them back – all observed by a stage hand, a reminder of how the most ardent passion can seem pathetic to the audience, the non-actor.

This mish-mash of dysfunctional, endearing and repulsive characters is played deftly by a strong ensemble – no cardboard cut outs here. Between them they prompt laughter, guffaws even, and sombre reflection. Gyuri Sarossy as the successful writer Trigorin gives just the right amount of the earnest artist mixed with the charming seducer and Pearl Chanda in her professional debut fuels our exasperation with, and pity of, Nina in equal measure. Jenny Rainsford and Catherine Cusack glitter as Masha and Polina.

The Seagull is a play about theatrical performance, both on and off the stage, the role of the playwright, and the power of theatre to interpret and shine a light. This production explored all of those themes and kept them in balance. Literally at times, with a giant see-saw used to beautiful effect in the second act. Laura Hopkin’s simple staging, like a series of giant canvasses in Tate Modern, evoked a lake, a playground, a summer idyll, and a claustrophobic winter goal. And against this backdrop we were treated to a rather brilliant night out at the theatre.

Joanna Matthews