The Royal Court tradition, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, used to be to stage radical modern plays like classics and classics like radical modern plays. But Ian Rickson, the Court’s outgoing artistic director, has broken with that tradition. On the one hand, he’s concentrated throughout his regime on new plays (although his way of staging them has indeed been classical). On the other, in giving us Chekhov’s Seagull for his farewell, he hasn’t staged it like a radical new play at all. He’s simply given us The Seagull itself, mint-fresh and more marvellous than we’ve seen it in 15 years.
This is a play regular theatre-goers are in danger of seeing too often (in the role of Arkadina since 1990, I’ve seen Susan Fleetwood, Dorothy Tutin, Judi Dench, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Wilton, Clare Higgins, Fiona Shaw and Juliet Stephenson), but here, helped by an admirable new version by Christopher Hampton, we simply come out talking of the play and its characters as if making their acquaintance for the first time. Against decor by Hildegard Bechtler that evokes late-19th-century Russia with poetic economy, Rickson perfectly gauges how one emotion is set against another, how characters exist always in the context of each other, and how at every moment the atmosphere keeps changing.
At the centre of a production where even Yakov the workman (Christopher Patrick Nolan) makes a memorable and novel contribution are performances by Carey Mulligan as Nina and Mackenzie Crook as Konstantin of riveting vulnerability and emotional transparency. People who know Crook only from The Office will be astounded to see the pain he reveals here (I think him the best Konstantin since Simon Russell Beale); with him, and with the touchingly innocent Mulligan even more, one sees emotion changing the skin’s very colour.
Katherine Parkinson makes the plaintive, self-doomed Masha so absurdly funny that she gets an exit round of applause, while making her troubles as real as any character in the play. One wants to discuss at length Kristin Scott Thomas’s mercurial, narcissistic Arkadina, absolutely en beauté, Art Malik’s bluff, steady Dr Dorn, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s unusually youthful and calmly honest Trigorin, but in truth they are no more excellent than Pearce Quigley’s disconsolate Medvedenko, Paul Jesson’s furiously blinkered Shamrayev, Denise Black’s miserable Polina, or Peter Wight’s perplexed, declining Sorin.
Such all-round excellence reflects, of course, on Rickson as director, and so do the virtues of interplay and focus that distinguish all these performances. (The scene-change between Acts Three and Four is alone a thing of beauty.) Although it’s true that Act Four could reach further intensity, this is a Seagull that could transfer with distinction to a West End stage. You laugh at and about this Masha, you are compelled by this Nina, Konstantin and Arkadina, as with people you know, and Chekhov brings to this reality a quality of revelation that makes it mesmerisingly truthful.
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