People who prefer their Chekhov unchanged in time or place may balk at the prospect of seeing The Seagull transplanted from a Russian acreage to an estate in western Ireland. They may fear that a doctor called Hickey instead of Dorn or a writer named Aston instead of Trigorin will dull too much of what they savour in dear Anton. As the mature actress Isobel, this engaging adaptation’s version of Irena Arkadina, exclaims when she watches the curtain rise on a newfangled play written by her mercurial son, Constantine, “Oh, God, it’s one of those Celtic things.”
But this adaptation by Thomas Kilroy, originally commissioned by this production’s director, Max Stafford-Clark, when he ran London’s Royal Court, and mounted now by off-Broadway’s Culture Project, doesn’t alter Chekhov’s timeframe: we remain in the late 19th century. What is different this time is the kind of comedy that comes across.
This production, which is set in County Galway, emerges at times as a comedy of surfaces. If we are nowhere near the sublime superficialities of the contemporaneous Oscar Wilde, we are aware of how the glamourous artistic life of London, where Isobel is a notable figure, has replaced her Irish melancholy with Brit wit.
Only Isobel delivers cutting remarks to relieve the general sodden despair. Only Isobel, given a poised and elegant performance by Trudie Styler, criminally unknown to most New York theatregoers, can put the ninny Constantine in his place. And only Isobel is allowed an ostentatious costume, even when a big bustle seems awfully incongruous with the rigours of travel in the west of Ireland.
In spite of the pleasures of watching Styler stride the stage, the heart of the play is elsewhere: provided by appropriately weak-willed Alan Cox, as Aston, and a touching Rachel Spencer Hewitt, as Lily (Nina to Chekhov). The plot, which occurs significantly offstage, involves his degrading her, and Constantine’s resulting self-destruction.
The poetic analogy, of course, is between a seagull shot by a sportsman and Lily’s ruination. Poetry is not paramount in Kilroy’s inspired adaptation. He furnishes a clear approximation free from unnecessary flourish. Director Stafford-Clark has noted the affinities between Russia and Ireland in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. But as this Seagull, satisfying if not especially affecting, makes clear, sadness and frustration and illusion are impervious to timeframe.