I recently took a risk and met a total stranger to go to the Lyric, Hammersmith, to see Chekhov’s The Seagull with a total stranger. After years of trying and failing to get friends to go to the theatre with me I had given up as they either didn’t like the theatre or didn’t like the same plays. So when I saw an advert on NextDoor.com for neighbours to get in touch if they’d like to form a theatre-going group, I said I was in.
My new companion Elizabeth was waiting for me outside The Lyric, where a modernised version of The Seagull was dividing critics who mainly loved it but if they hated it, they really hated it. During the interval we discovered that it had also divided opinion between me and Elizabeth as she ‘was not enjoying it at all’ and said she would have left if I hadn’t been so clearly having a good time.
It’s certainly nothing like a traditional production of a Chekhov play, which seems to be the main reason for negative criticisms. The adaptation is by Simon Stephens and brings it to the present day with very little to identify it as originally Russian. Short skirts, long Russian names cut to first name only to sound contemporary, four-letter words and slang phrases like ‘what is he like?’ all create a different atmosphere to the angst we know and love in this kind of play.
The Seagull is a play about professional jealousy, writers and writing, and also about the theatre and acting, with unrequited love adding a more universal element. None of the characters love somebody who loves them back, while the narcissistic Irina fails to treat her only son Konstantin with love as she can only manage to love herself. His adulthood makes it harder for her to pretend she’s still young, while his girlfriend Nina is an up-and-coming actor, making her more desperate to prove she isn’t the ‘old has-been’ the resident farmer Leo accuses her of being in a rare honest outburst. Most of her friends know she can’t bear compliments going to anyone but her, and they humour her even when she insists she could play a 15-year-old.
Lesley Sharp is superb in the role of Irina, mostly funny, sometimes irritating, especially when she tries to steal the attention from her own son when he presents his over-written experimental play, and shockingly abusive when she loses control and destroys him with cutting criticism about his total lack of talent in her eyes. Brian Vernel is equally striking as Konstantin, ambitious to be a playwright, but aware of his own failings and the stronger effect of the simplicity of his mother’s lover Boris’s writing. His girlfriend Nina is also in thrall to the famous writer Boris, played by Nicholas Gleaves. At one point Konstantin stands at the front of the stage facing the audience while Nina tells him she loves Boris, not him, and his whole reaction is shown purely by facial expressions and an attempt to hold back tears.
There was some uneasy laughter as Irina persuaded Boris to leave with her and go back to the city after he asked her permission for ‘just one night’ with Nina. In the original play she may persuade him with some flattery, some begging, a hug or kiss and the question ‘You are coming, aren’t you?’ but this takes on a whole new double-meaning when she undoes the belt of his trousers and gives him a very determined hand-job. If Lesley Sharp acts this out well, with the poignancy of desperation combined with comedy, Nicholas Gleaves’ orgasm is also quite impressively realistic. As she wipes her hands with a tissue and passes one to him to clean himself down, her manipulation of him is as symbolic as her son’s overly metaphorical plays.
Adelayo Adedayo as Nina bursts onto the stage with youth and energy at the start and is convincing in her adulation of Boris, her belief that nothing could be better than the life of a writer. Although he tries to disillusion her, explaining in a striking monologue how writing is like an addiction and how he is never living through experiences without jotting them down in a notebook to use, she remains faithful to her belief in art and isn’t frightened off by his idea for a story when he sees a seagull shot by Konstantin. He tells her he will write about a man who meets a girl who has lived all her life by a lake, like Nina, and how he breaks her like the seagull just because he has the time and nothing better to do.
The production did a great job in bringing out the comedy in the writing, with more humour added by the superb comic performances. Lloyd Hutchinson as Leo hasn’t been noted by the critics as he’s not a major character, but he was perhaps my favourite and I looked forward to each of his anecdotes, all funny and beautifully told in his Northern Ireland accent while all of the other characters completely ignored him. He was totally immersed in his own world and unforgettable.
In fact all of the characters are in their own world in this play and the production by Sean Holmes drew attention to this fragmentation. The gaps and silences between the characters as they gather together in a rural house by a lake worked well in the first part, but after the interval it sometimes felt as if it had fallen apart, perhaps intentionally. Time has passed and they have returned to the house, but they have all changed, especially Nina, the seagull of the title and of Boris’s story, which he has brought to completion and completely forgotten.
The cast all deserve a mention but space is brief so it can only be a summary. Michele Austin is a very natural Pauline, married but in love with the worldly and world-weary doctor Hugo, played by Paul Higgins – nice, happy with his lot, and causing misery in the woman he will not acknowledge openly.
Cherrelle Skeete as Marcia is a troubled young woman, like a present day Hamlet, unrequitedly in love with Konstantin and an admirer of his writing while others mock his overly symbolic and experimental style. Her love means nothing to him and can’t save him, as he remains devoted to Nina even though she tells him openly of her feelings for Boris. Marcia thinks she can overcome her love for Konstantin by marrying Simeon, who adores her, but while the audience appreciates him, she becomes more irritated by his affection. Raphael Sowole is completely believable in this role.
The Seagull is directed by Sean Holmes and runs until Saturday – it’s well worth seeing. The Lyric is known for risk-taking and original productions and this is a prime example.
Next up I’ll be seeing Young Marx at the Bridge Theatre and will keep you posted.