Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Seagull

Siren Theatre Co and Sidetrack Theatre present THE SEAGULL by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Christopher Hampton.

I traveled by bus out to Sidetrack Theatre in Marrickville, not so far away. The bus(428), in fact, stops directly outside the venue. Inside the theatre, a converted assembly hall or drill hall of times past, the wooden interior walls are painted an attractive blue-grey black. The audience's seating is raked steeply into the rafters of the architecture. Later, in the interval, passing onto a wooden patio, amongst gas heating stands, as it is winter, to refresh with a drink or standing in a quaintly old fashioned foyer, looking at the photographs of the production, resplendent with improvised box office and drinks bar, an atmosphere of raw anticipation pervades.

It had just been a week of drenching rain and the atmosphere in the theatre spaces and outside, in the grounds of this Addison Rd. Community Centre, on this clear winter night, were a refreshing sense stimulant and the theatre building had the added, oddly, felicitous familiarity of the look of the wooden barn/house that one sees in the histories of the Moscow Art Theatre: the house at Pushkino where the Moscow Art-Accessible Theatre rehearsed, in its first summer of existence. THE SEAGULL being the last play of their season. Instead of the mooing of cows or other animal life on this 'country' estate in Marrickville, the flight noises of the overhead airport traffic buzzed down on us. My ‘romantic’ imagination was seduced pleasantly into a feeling of the beginning of a new enterprise, here, with Kate Gaul's first production of Chekhov and first production by her Siren Company in this venue. It was Opening night, 5th June.

It has been over a week since I saw the production. What lingers is the warm glow of Luiz Pampolha's lighting on the simple design choices of Ms Gaul and Andy McDonell - a large, oblong, grey picture frame curtained with a white light material, when opened to reveal a crushed white paper backcloth. The wooden floorboards of the hall covered simply with a few suggestive selected properties for each act: for instance, a large wooden oblong table in the last act, softly emanating a warmth, one end covered with the writing utensils of the young writer, Konstantin (Josh Wakely), the other end with the gaming implements of a family passing time with Lotto on a muted table cloth.

The almost continuous sound score composed by Daryl Wallis, a glassy, music-box Ravel like impressionistic conflagration of gentle "noise" (The music of Vladimir Rebikov, a contemporary of Chekhov is mentioned in the program notes) haunts my memory still. Sometimes appropriate, other times puzzling in its presence, but lingering. It, with the visual imaging of the set and lighting created an impressionistic mood that is soft and sentimentalizing -romantic. A 'romantic' not naturalistic conception (the costumes, also by Mr McDonell, not at all clear in the mixed styles, attracts attention unnecessarily - confusedly, in period and otherwise).

The performances in this production are dominated by Zoe Carides' reading of Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, an actress, protective of herself and her lover, the writer, Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin (Matt Edgerton). It is a witty reading conflicted with the pathetically human dilemma of an aging woman gripping fiercely onto the world of security that she has constructed for herself, attempting to balance a world of work in the theatre on the brink of decline; the possibility of debt in her near future; the demands of an aspiring playwright son banished to the family estate because of "causes for which,as they say, the editor accepts no responsibility" with "no qualifications, no money. not one kopeck"; and the wandering eye of her man, Trigorin, "the last page of her life" fixing on a young, bedazzled star-struck country girl, Nina Mikhailonvna Zarechnaya (Lizzie Schebesta) who is "prepared to suffer the resentment of my (her) family, poverty, disappointments, I'd live in a garret and eat nothing but black bread, and endure not being satisfied with my work and being aware of my own imperfections, but in return I'd ask for fame...real, spectacular fame." With the lightest of touches, Ms Carides sprinkles her machinations to survive as she wants with the complexity of conflicting life needs that are both comic and deeply empathetic. Chekhov played, in my estimation, with the "direct" life and "indirect" life of the author's text with insight and good judgement. This performance is reason enough to see this production.

The translation by Christopher Hampton (January, 2007 for the Royal Court Theatre with Kristin Scott Thomas as a spectacular Arkadina, by all reports) allows for Ms Gaul to lead her actors to a humorous reading, and much laughter on the opening night leavened this production,(Chekhov does sub-title his play: "A Comedy in Four Acts") that mostly plays for a superficial glance at the density of the material.

Most of the acting had not settled into an ensemble whole on the opening night. There was a tendency for the actors to play in self contained bubbles, serving the scene on the page directly, with barely an iota of comprehension of the sub-textual life or "indirect"/sub-textual clues of the writing, or if they did, had no ability to communicate it expressively.

After Ms Carides the next best "Chekhovian" performance was given by Genevieve Mooy as Polina. Josh Wakely seemed out of his depth as Konstantin, both technically and imaginatively. Lizzie Schebesta as Nina was pretty and well spoken with no real grasp of the dramatic arc of the character's journey drawn by Chekhov. The last act was played in a generalized, 'actressy', romantic haze of sentimentality. No real sense of the dramatic life experiences that she had endured in the year or so between the Act Three and Act Four. She looked trivially affected by the broken love affair with Trigorin, her pregnancy and then death of her child; a wretched working life in small roles on provincial stages where she is "acting" badly, enduring "travelling in third class to Yelets... with the peasants; and in Yelets (where) the culture - loving tradesmen will harass me (her) with their attentions." She finishes, "Life is ugly", under direction and design, I imagine, dressed in a shimmering dress with a glowing swathe of blonde hair, perched stagily on a bed with a pained Kostia, close by. Mr Edgerton's Trigorin, under powered and under imagined and expressed - underwhelming. If these three principle characters are not galvanised with histories and psychological insight then there is a default in the possibility of the full experience of this great play. However, even when it is played as vaudville as Katherine Cullen does, executing her choices as Masha as a heavily made up “clown”, eye lashes and liner, poking her head out between the joins of the stage curtain, wearing a school girl hat in act one, and then giving a brilliant playing, with full-on theatrical pyrotechnics, the act three drunk scene, to capture a round of applause as she exits, the play is still resilient to this battering and lapse of judgement to have a hold on our attention (One was driven to ask which of these two characters, Masha or Nina, had aspirations for the stage career as a life choice? In this production the talent for theatrics seemed to emanate from Masha).

Most of the acting by the Siren Theatre Company reveals the life of the scenes as they occur not much more. The company tend to supply a life for the characters on the page but fail to capture the lives of these people of Russia. From where they have come, the lives they are leading, captured momentarily by Chekhov in each of his four acts and where they are going is not explored at all. The reality of famine and restive, looting peasants behind the arguments between the estate owner, Sorin, and his manager, Shamrayev, over the necessity for the "barking dogs" to guard "against thieves breaking into the barn" in the famous quarrel scene of Act Two is passed off as a kind of comic turn, instead of a trenchant need for Shamrayev, as vital as his blessed memory of the upstaging of the great, Silva by a member of the local choir.

It is a great play and like my recent experience at the Darlinghurst Theatre of Alan Ayckbourn's BEDROOM FARCE, another great play, where the production did not meet the potential of the writing, The SEAGULL is mercurial enough to still reward the audience.

The play's chief subjects are art and love, never far from each other thematically. A play with fifty “poods” of love. All, alas, unrequited. Medvedenko (Kade Greenland) loves Masha, Masha loves Kostia, Kostia loves Nina, Nina loves Trigorin, Arkadina loves Trigorin, Trigorin loves.....(himself?). Shamrayev (Monroe Reimers) loves(?) Polina, Polina loves Dorn (Robert Alexander), Dorn loves… A comedy, indeed!

Anton Chekhov wrote for the theatre in a new way. He wrote about life that he hoped would be lived on stage as real people. He was a contemporary writer. He wrote what he saw about him for the theatre with the same insight and intelligence as his famous short stories. In reaction to the histrionics usually seen on the Russian stage, he attempted to put on stage day to day existence.

A new way of acting was required and at the heart of the success of this great play, after a disastrously misconceived production in 1896 at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg, to which Chekhov complained "They are acting too much. It must be done simply. Just as if in life. It must be done as if they spoke about it every day"... From the book Nemirovich-Dantchenko, MY LIFE IN THE THEATRE: "This did not mean that the actors were overacting. It meant that they were acting feelings, images, words"; Nemirovitch-Dantchenko and Stanislavski created a mise en scene and practice of rehearsal for the Moscow Art version in 1898 that was based in the intuition and expression of the underlife, the beneath the line intimations of the characters. Great care about everyday naturalism in the scenery, props, lighting, sound and acting was taken. It revolutionised the theatre techniques of the Russian stage and subsequently the world.

And still, today, the Chekhov repertoire, especially the four great last plays, THE SEAGULL, UNCLE VANYA, THREE SISTERS, and THE CHERRY ORCHARD throw a challenge to all artists who attempt to explore them. Some actors declare that to play only the works of Shakespeare and Chekhov would be enough for a lifetime. Ms Gaul after a wonderfully brave and, to my experience, successful production of RICARD III, last year, now tests her mettle with the Russian. This is, relatively, a less than successful attempt, but one still worth capturing. Practice in this atmosphere of character and relationships will grow from experience to experience. Chekhov requires intuition from all the artists and the ability then to infect each other and the audience with that insight, it is mysterious and ephemeral, but when caught, as it was caught in the UNCLE VANYA by the Russian Company from St.Petersburg at the Sydney Festival a few years ago it is pure theatrical magic. Sometimes life-changing.

Here from the Siren Theatre Company in the Sidetrack Theatre in Marrickville, I carry, several weeks after the event, a memory of my night spent with them, and although I was unhappy with most of it, it lingers. Still. Something happened. Check it out for yourself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Spot on, Kevin. I found it such a weak rendering of the play that I left at interval. This is one of my favourite plays of all time but I found no characters who seemed real and whose shortcomings I could identify with. I don't think any of the actors had really thought about their connection to the characters they played as they merely represented them.