It’s a pleasure to be in the company of the entire cast of Ian Rickson’s revelatory production of The Seagull. Let me throw my hat in the air at the outset and hail it as the finest production of Chekhov I’ve seen in a generation.
The production at the Walter Kerr on Broadway began at the Royal Court Theatre, and Mr. Hickson’s use of British and American actors works uncommonly well. There’s none of the usual culture clash of either accent or manner; nor any poeticizing of Chekhov’s text (a traditional weakness among British actors).
It’s a cliché of theater that there are no small parts, only small actors. But Chekhov always stands or falls on the precarious balancing act of its ensemble and its accomplishment in depth. Each cast member here is of the highest order—from the beautiful, impossibly narcissistic Arkadina of Kristin Scott Thomas; to the riveting performance of Carey Mulligan as the naïve ingénue Nina; to the hardened, grieving heart of Zoe Kazan’s utterly alive Masha, who’s played too often as an old crone. What a glorious future in theater Ms. Kazan has ahead of her! But I see that I’m already en route to paying tribute to everyone onstage.
Christopher Hampton’s crisp, exemplary new version of Chekhov’s 1896 masterpiece has taken the play closer to its tragic core than is customary. Chekhov’s description of the play as a “comedy” of family life is deceptive. The Seagull is set in a country estate on a lake, and it begins on a note of dark humor with Medvedenko’s staggering question to his indifferent love, Masha: “Why do you always wear black?” (Answer: “I’m in mourning for my life. I’m unhappy.”) And the action ends four acts later as a tragedy of human folly and suicide.
A comedy tonight?
The Seagull has its farcical moments, to be sure—particularly from the ailing, buffoonish old duffer, Sorin, still longing to be reborn a writer, still fooling himself. Chekhov’s drama about two actresses (one famous, the other aspiring) mirrored by two writers (one famous, the other aspiring) might also be seen as his comment on the allure and folly of success. But in its unsentimental essence—and Chekhov, most compassionate of all modern playwrights, is never sentimental—the play is about death.
THE SEAGULL IS about the death of love and illusion. Who achieves happiness in the play? Perhaps the family doctor Dorn has found a certain smug contentment in the memory of his appeal to attractive women. Dorn is both caring and uncaring; he’s someone who’s dully settled into middle age. The rest are all portraits in self-deception and loss. Six of the characters are fatally in love with the wrong person:
Arkadina is in love with herself. (She needs the love of the best-selling, feckless writer Trigorin for vanity’s sake.) Her tormented son, the potential avant-garde playwright Konstantin, has always been disastrously in love with the future actress Nina, who wrecks her life—and his—when she runs off with Trigorin. There’s also Masha, who secretly adores the blindly indifferent Konstantin, but sacrificially marries the ardent, humorless bore, Medvedenko, the local schoolmaster; and, for good measure, there’s the babushka Polina—unhappy wife of the frustrated estate manager—who’s crazy about Dorn, who doesn’t give a toss about her.
Chekhov engages us fully in the fate of all these characters entangled, apparently, in a mere domestic comedy. His unpretentious genius conveys the extraordinary through the ordinary. Mr. Hickson’s design team achieves a miracle of staging in space and light and sound—particularly the wonderful, evocative simplicity conjured up by the scenic designer, Hildegard Bechtler (who doesn’t allow a samovar in sight). The play’s shifting mood and tempo are marvelously right. The prolonged, very risky moment that comes during the first half when “the angel of death has flown overhead” is uncannily achieved in its silent mystery and danger.
The delicate balance of Chekhov’s naturalism can be easily spoiled, as a house of cards comes crashing down with a single clumsy move. But there’s not a false note in the production the entire night. Every performance has been rethought and made fresh.
A famous actress playing a famous actress has sunk many an Arkadina relying on histrionic divalike outrageousness to “charm” us. The innate intelligence of the lovely, patrician Ms. Scott Thomas has found the glib cruelty within the renowned role. Captivating, self-deluding, middle-aged Arkadina “wants to live and love and wear vivid blouses,” as her resentful, whining son protests, “but here I am, 25 years old, and a constant reminder that she’s not young anymore.”