The First Night Feature: The Seagull

Published April 17, 2008

Following its premiere in the new Courtyard theatre in Stratford and a world tour, Trevor Nunn’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of Chekhov’s The Seagull comes to the capital in repertoire with Shakespeare’s King Lear, which opens tonight. Caroline Bishop was at the New London theatre for the first night.

Chekhov’s The Seagull charts the loves, rivalries, bitterness and passion in the relationships between a group of people gathered together on the estate of the elderly Sorin one summer. At its heart are Sorin’s younger sister, Arkadina, a middle-aged actress who demands to be the centre of attention among her family and friends; and her son Konstantin, a struggling young playwright constantly exasperated by his mother’s selfishness. This exasperation is fuelled by the presence of his mother’s younger lover, the novelist Trigorin, who is more successful than Konstantin both in Arkadina’s affections and in his career.

Added to this central power struggle is a series of entanglements of the heart. Konstantin is desperately in love with Nina, an aspiring young actress, who in turn finds herself in awe of Trigorin. Meanwhile Masha, the austere daughter of the estate steward, is obsessed with Konstantin, brushing off the affections of her own suitor, wimpy schoolteacher Medvedenko. The events that are set in motion that summer have profound consequences for Nina and Konstantin, which are played out two years later.

Frances Barber holds court on stage at the New London as Arkadina, imbuing the character with a similar melodrama and self-absorption as her Cleopatra at Shakespeare’s Globe last year. Revelling in her own importance as an actress, Arkadina has a great line in put downs and fake sincerity which riles Richard Goulding’s earnest and angst-ridden Konstantin. Romola Garai’s Nina is a highly strung, delicate girl, easily impressed by Gerald Kyd’s Trigorin. Meanwhile, Monica Dolan plays the obsessive Masha as a caricature, spiralling into alcoholism as her unrequited love for Konstantin twists her into a knot of bitterness. Watching over them all is Sorin, whom William Gaunt (who alternates in the role with Ian McKellen) plays as an affectionate retiree with a kindly, all-knowing sympathy for the emotional turmoil of youth.

Trevor Nunn’s production peppers the melodrama with comic touches, mostly generated by Arkadina’s artistic temper tantrums, though the actress’s time on stage is limited within a story that focuses on Konstantin’s doomed passion for the increasingly unstable Nina, who is used up and spat out by Trigorin. While Arkadina wears her selfishness on her sleeve, most of Chekhov’s characters are equally out for themselves, as demonstrated by Konstantin’s final dramatic act. em>CB