Monday, June 27, 2011

The Seagull

THE SEAGULL - a Comedy in Four Acts by Anton Chekkhov in a version by Benedict Andrews in the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir St. Theatre.

VICTORY by Howard Barker was the last time that Judy Davis was on stage in Sydney. It was to see her that I bought my tickets to attend THE SEAGULL at Belvoir. To be able to watch Ms Davis on stage again, is too thrilling an opportunity to miss. A lot of other people have felt the same. The season was sold out - all but standing room - for weeks before the opening. Some of my friends bought their tickets despite the fact that it was another Chekhov play, the recent Sydney Theatre Company production of UNCLE VANYA having flummoxed their expectations of value for money and thought the play "boring' despite the stellar cast. Some of my friends bought their tickets despite the caution they felt about having to see another production by Benedict Andrews. THE WAR OF THE ROSES and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF still aggravating their gonads and much else. They were all going because of Ms Davis, despite Chekhov and Andrews. The gift of seeing her at work again, live - too rare an opportunity to miss.

A summary of my response to the performance is : I was quite excited by Act One. A little becalmed with the Second Act. After the interval, Act Three, a little irritated. Act Four, entirely depressed. I have been struggling with my response. Most of the reviews I have read have been 'pleased' to 'ecstatic. I have had to consider and search, research my disappointment. So what will follow will be a long, maybe 'dry', response, but since this play is a major work, with an outstanding cast and a highly esteemed director, worth doing. Continue on if you wish.

Dear Theatre Going Diary,

Firstly, the version by Benedict Andrews – this is based around a literal translation by Karen Vickery accompanied by 'thorough' footnotes. Ms Vickery was also responsible for the literal text on which Belvoir's production THE BUSINESS by Jonathan Gavin that was built, and based on Gorky’s play VASSA ZHELEZNOVA.

I have over time worked on and around some twenty or so versions of THE SEAGULL. My furthest reading is a 1927 version of TWO PLAYS by ANTON TCHEKHOF by George Calderon for Jonathan Cape. My nostalgic favourite, because it was my first introduction to Chekhov as an amateur actor, is the version by Elisaveta Fen for Penguin Books of Chekhov's plays, and the only one readily available in bulk for years and years. My favourite working text, however, has been Pam Gem's version (1994) for the National Theatre with Judi Dench as Irina Arkadina. Tom Stoppard has had a go (1997) for the Old Vic with Felicity Kendall, I love it's literary values; Martin Crimp's version for the National Theatre (2006) with Juliet Stevenson, directed by the controversial director Katie Mitchell; and Christopher Hampton's (2007) which Kate Gaul and Siren Theatre Company presented at Sidetrack last year with Zoe Carides, this, originally, for the Royal Court with Kristen Scott-Thomas - it toured to New York, veru successfully. The most famous Australian version is by Aubrey Mellor and Robert Dessaix, also created for Belvoir St in 1988 - much too admire in that, still.

Mr Andrews states that his version "has sought to remain entirely faithful to the spirit of Chekhov's thought and the speech processes of his characters" and with "…a particular milieu of the staging, contemporary Australia, a fibro shack along the coast" in mind. Mr Andrews goes on to say "Although the inflection of my version is distinctly Australian, I have maintained simplified Russian character names and places. The adopted world of the play might be imagined as simultaneously Russia then and Australia now - an overlapping, impossible time/place that only exists in the temporary, suspended world of theatre". One might say, an explanatory foot in both camps, and find the use of the word MIGHT in "might be imagined" as careful, and agree with the 'overlapping time/place "as being 'impossible". Impossible for some even, in the theatre of today, at Belvoir.

I, mostly, loved this version. It has a mighty muscular use of familiar vernacular and does maintain, in my reading, of many versions (oh, woe is me, I cannot read the original), the speech processes of Chekhov's characters. The transpositions are very witty indeed and often. Take the wonderful version of Konstantin's moans to his uncle, Sorin in Act One about his mother, the actress - perfectly apt and funny. " ... Nice things are to only be said about her. Only she should have articles and editorials written about her. Only she should win awards. We should all still be talking about her Nora, her Blanche, the time she played Hamlet. Because she's stuck out here, she's bored and shitty, and it's all our fault. Suddenly we are all against her - evidence of which is supplied by her numerology and her horoscopes. The junk she wastes her money on. Doesn't make her any kinder, any less stingy. I know for a fact she's got zillions stashed away but ask her for a loan and she has a nervous breakdown... " Clever.

There are, though, unsubtle shiftings to political contemporary urgings. For instance, the play text of Konstantin Treplov's play within the play, performed by Nina, has been extended into a climate change alarum, that pushes way beyond Chekhov's famous political delicacies. "... I am the song you cannot hear. I am the night of the world. I am the coming storm. I will repair the damaged DNA, heal the mutated cells. Listen! I am speaking to YOU. You who made every word a lie. Listen! Hear the rattle? Hear him coming? Crossing the plain. Hear him. RATTLE. I HEAR THE SICK FUCK RATTLE. ..." This liberty declares this Kostia as a fanatic (maybe a bit unhinged), emotionally infantile and worse, a bad writer - none of which Chekhov and his text could be uncouthly be accused of. Chekhov was more subtle, more ambiguous than that - to push a particular political agenda or unambiguously state an opinion about a person's qualities. He avoided writing opportunities for judgements on his characters - that is the deliciously titanic struggle that all actors have in attempting to create his men and women - no matter the size of their presence in his plays. Their human ambiguity, inconsistencies. Even Natasha in THREE SISTERS is not as aggressively written as Mr Andrews' Kostantin.

But, Mr Andrews takes none of the Shakespearean and literary liberties of Mr Stoppard or his playing with other discarded draft experiments, e.g. the presence of Sorin, asleep, in the last Nina - Kostia scene in Act Four. And, surely, of late, the most radical version is that of Martin Crimp who with his director Ms Mitchell, reduced the exposition, and cut the asides and soliloquies, and in the setting for Act One gives it an 180-degree rotation, so that the actors don't look upstage towards the lake, they look out towards the auditorium and so, in effect, removed all the outdoor locations, even moving the croquet lawn of Act Two into the same Act Four location. Mr Andrews is, relatively, sedate, with THE SEAGULL, particularly when you recall his slicing and dicing of Shakespeare in THE WAR OF THE ROSES for the Sydney Theatre Company. Amongst much else, HENRY V became a small collection of some of the major soliloquies and Installation Art tableaus: Henry covered in sweat, then in blood, and then in post-modern imagery, of oil. Henry's oil spoils from war!!! (Iraq, Iraq, Iraq was the echo).

I feel that the text as it is published is a first rate contemporary version, generally. The problem with this production seems to lie in the inability for the director, Mr Andrews, to put onto the stage the text he has authored. For on the page there is very little controversy, excepting perhaps the stage direction in the beginning of act four. From Sharon Marie Carnicke's famously accurate and meticulous reading of the original, 4 PLAYS AND 3 JOKES by CHEKHOV (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/ Cambridge, 2009):

"Two years pass between the Third and Fourth Acts. A drawing room in Sorin's house, which Treplev has turned into a study. To the right and left, doors leading to other interior rooms. A glass door opening out onto the terrace. Aside from the usual drawing-room furniture, there is a desk in the corner, a Turkish divan and a cupboard stand near the door. There are books on the shelves of the cupboard and on the chairs. Evening. One lamp with a shade is lit. The leaves of the trees and the howling of the wind in the chimney can be heard. The watchman is tapping".

Mr Andrews version:

"Two years pass between the third and fourth acts. A lounge room in the house, now used by Konstantin as a workroom. Evening. Wind. Ash falls on the garden".

It is the falling ash that grabs you when you watch the play, here is boorishness, if not controversy - but more of that later.

After the text let us look at the next thing one encounters with this production: the Design. From Mr Andrews' program notes: "In considering Belvoir's 2011 season, Ralph (Myers) and I had been looking for a play in which the theatre reflects on theatre. This is a moment of generational change in Australian theatre - the shift from Neil (Armfield) to Ralph is part of that. In Ralph's first year as Artistic Director I wanted to reflect on the task and craft and impetus of theatre-making. What is at stake in the experience? "

If you click onto the James Waites’ blog post on THE SEAGULL, there is a photographic image of the design solution that Mr Andrews and Mr Myers arrived at for this hybrid Russian/Australian transposition of the Chekhov play. In fact, the angle of the photograph is a replica, almost, of my view of the stage, in the seat that I was allocated. It is an architectural depiction of a fibro holiday house that may be found around parts of coastal Australia. Certainly some of the writers on this production have had resonant responses of memories of their own holidays and gushed with approval. I, too, can recall recent sojourns to the Bay of Plenty, not far from Huskinson, on the south coast of New South Wales - a flimsy kit house , furnished with flimsy, almost disposable furniture, it all works, but, it is oh so cheap - the Bay of Plenty house, that is. I was kind of shocked at this visual transposition of the Chekhov original but gradually imagined that this represented a kind of outhouse of the Sorin property with the main "farm" house off stage up to the right somewhere, not to distant - in the direction that the cast entered from and exited too. This arid location design finding a "new formula” to sit this production in. NEW FORM is one of the principal themes desired by the artists, that is the writers of Chekhov's play, especially Kostia.

The white fibro house scaled along the two walls of the Belvoir stage and roofed, sitting on what I presume is a barren, white concreted surface is a lovely replica for the nostalgic amongst us, it seems. The Australianess of it is recognisable and along with the vernacular transposition of the text a very neat companion of invention. It brings to mind the urban design for Mr Andrews very successful imaging of Patrick White's THE SEASON OF SARSPARILLA, a few years back at the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House for the Sydney Theatre Company. These two setting designs are relations of a genetic image of some people's Australia. It has, from the response to it, powerful connections for some of the audience.

However, if Mr Andrews and Mr Myers are reflecting on the task and CRAFT of theatre making with the responsibility of taking and allowing the contemporary audience to, maybe, (to quote Star Trek) “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before", then a design that, literally prevents a third or more of the audience from seeing the action of the play in its long and important fourth act displays a lack of basic theatre craftsmanship that the master of this stage and the use of it, their predecessor and the originator of their acknowledged heritage, Neil Armfield, would never have made.

I know, (check out the photograph, again, on the James Waites blog) that those of us seated on the right hand bank of the theatre seating, (direction from the audience point of view. I was G 45-46, I think. Two from the end) could not view any of the a crucial action of the fourth act played in the long wall kitchen/lounge space in the L-shape configuration of Chekhov's converted study that these two new leaders of theatre innovation, had crafted for us. Well, to be more accurate, I could see into the kitchen, opposite me on the shorter wall, but, not any of the character action in the other section of that space. And what I have learned is that some of the audience seated on the left hand bank were also, because of architectural features of walls and supports etc were not able, as well, to see all of the action in that space. So, it would seem to me, only those of the centre block seats got to see all of the production.

Where were these other critics/bloggers, who are so enamoured of this production, seated? If this is the level of theatre craft that these two artists are taking us too and that we can expect in the future, then I will want to see a design plan before purchasing my tickets so that I can benefit from the "brilliant" conception of these two new leaders of the theatre, in seats that take in the whole action of the production. For whom was this production prepared ? The centre block patrons, while the others, more or less, were subsidising the cost of this production with limited view seats? I was not warned that this was to be my experience. Limited view. Is this the stated task and craft of theatre making that Mr Andrews talks of? Is the resulting design solution caused by inexperience of the space, ignorance of basic design needs (ensuring that the paying audience can see the production) or arrogance, unconscious or otherwise? You can see, one of the reasons for my reaction to the fourth act of this production: I couldn't see it, all of it.

But to go from a particular hardship of these artistic choices, for me, as a paying audience member, what I particularly observed that was absent from these design solutions was landscape. Nature and landscape are important elements and thematics in Chekhov's conceptions of all of his later plays.

Chekhov has set the first act outdoors on a summer night with a deliberately placed rising moon, over the landscape of a lake, that Kostia has timed for in his new form production scenario of "real life", his play. He actually engages nature for design effect, and also presumably lighting effect, as was common in the nineteenth century in organising outdoor events- the moon's calendar was important. The sense of art connected to the real world was part of Kostia's vision and crucial for the impact of his new art. The moon rising over a lake. Time moving and speeding by, nature harnessed by the artist for metaphoric, design and story-telling intentions. An alternative to the out-moded conceptions that Kostia so despises "There's a room with three walls, illuminated by artificial light.." A view of fibro, concrete, a painted backcloth and neon signage telling it is "real life" seems to me, to quote Mr Andrews' Konstantin, "sentimental, self-congratulatory shit masquerading as reality. Or second hand ideas dressed up as cutting fucking edge." I thought, at last Mr Andrews had a sense of humour and along with his perspex box for the Kostia play, in act one, and having Nina on Microphone , throwing flour, and then confetti ash over herself , he was giving a piss-take version of his usual signature devices. Sadly, by the time I got to act four, maybe he and and Mr Myers were serious about all that hokum, as hilarious as the self-referencing amusement may be.

The second act of this production is set on a concrete floor with white reflecting fibro, (Lighting: Damien Cooper, with the biggest lighting rigg I have ever seen in a theatre this size in Australia- to what affect was too subtle for me to catch, lifting the summer heat , no doubt for these sun catching characters in the Andrews production instead of the croquet lawn of the estate house of the original. What is the design intention? Is there a consideration of the hostility of the glare and blare of the Australian climate with man, who, in an attempt to utilising it, is being 'cooked' by it, as an alternative to the Russian Chekhov game playing lawn of cool discussion of health tips and De Maupassant? What was Chekhov's intention, I wonder? Is there a metaphor in the Myer's design that we should be reading? In the Chekhov, there is.

The third act, in this production is part indoors, the kitchen, and outdoors in the open air of the concrete yard. Chekhov has it in a dining room? Again, what are the deliberations of Chekhov in his usual careful visual design metaphors, to those of Myers and Andrews? Not clear to me. Oh, there is an amusing, if self-consciously actorly bit of business of having Masha eat cornflakes with vodka in the glass perspex box- best use it, again, (we can’t seem to get it off stage and it probably cost a bomb) - utilising the microphone to interact again!

Then we get to the great act of this play which Chekhov has set in a transposed room, a drawing room converted to a writer's study, for Kostia, sheltering from a winter storm of wind and rain. In Mr Andrews' production we have a holiday shack with doors that can't close, still in summer, with ash now falling on the concrete, unremarked about by the characters in the play (A bush fire or what? A magic-realist reference ?) The program text tells us that there is wind, but on the night I saw it, there was no wind, just a becalmed straight fall of ash from the real life theatre roof. Is it just lazy repeated imaging by the director, from THE WAR OF THE ROSES, which, comparatively had, at least, contextual references within that production design and made sense of it ? It might have made sense, here, too, if the text in the new Andrews' Kostia play could be heard more accurately, with careful direction organisation by the director, as per author, over the cacophonous noise of its performance: bellowing microphoned screams from Nina accompanied by flour and ash throwing, and reckless control of the boxes' four wheels and dense smoke guns smothering the action of the players, and screeching sound from the avant-gard sound artist Yakov (heart beats interactively created by bio-sensors - hilarious!). Again, the landscape of nature, a feature of Chekov ignored by the two creatives and silly tricks and tics extrapolated instead. I surmise they have made an alternative metaphor choice for their Australian transposition, what it is, is, however difficult to decipher.

But the major design flaw, if one is still playing Chekhov, is to have the room that Kostia shoots himself on stage, in full view of the audience. Here, Mr Andrews has him enter the room, which is centre stage, against the wall, in full view of the audience, and piles mattresses across the window in dramatic preparation for his suicide. This is a direct contradiction of Chekhov's exploration of new theatre form by taking the climax of the play, the suicide of Kostia, off stage, into a deliberately anti-melodramatic statement. Indirect inference rather than the old fashioned manners of the stage, of direct action, was Chekhov's dramatic ‘new form’ gesture. Finishing the play in pianissimo instead of forte. What has Benedict Andrews intended with this statement of forte configuration: creating an old fashioned TV soap opera? I don't know.

By this time, on the night of my experience of this production, I just couldn't be bothered to attempt to muse on it. I had got to such a low of nit picking that I was attempting to make sense of the flowers that Polina had torn apart and thrown to the floor in the kitchen in act two, that were still on the floor, supposedly two years later in the same room, in act four ? The director has made careful choices about what the audience see, didn't he?

I was trying to solve the probability that the microphone in the perspex box of the first act play, two years later, having sat in the open air, presumably, was still in working order and connected to a sound-system, for Masha to play with. I became utterly bewildered by the arbitrary entrance of the gleaming neon signs, in this cutting edge version of Chekhov's THE SEAGULL, announcing REAL LIFE as if it had only been two hours, not two years, since we had last seen them.

Wait. I guess in my real life in the theatre that was exactly so. Is that what Mr Andrews was saying? HA, HA. We are all in our real life experience watching a real live play in the upstairs Belvoir theatre with two walls and "pretending to be real- pretending to eat, drink, walk, talk, love - wear jackets…" so that "we want to scream: STOP. STOP TRYING TO MAKE ME FEEL YOUR FAKE FEELINGS. STOP TRYING TO TRICK ME. STOP TREATING ME LIKE A CHILD. YOUR REALITY IS NOT MY REALITY. YOUR DEAD WORLD IS NOT MY WORLD." Is that the directorial intention?

I was trying to work out why the Nina and Kostia scene in act four was staged with Kostia standing in the entrance of the vomitory in relative darkness at some distance from Nina, who stood centre stage with intensifying lighting changes, reciting her famous, "I am a seagull" speeches as a self affecting monologue instead of a cauterising duologue with Kostia, that leads directly to such catastrophic consequences at the fast approaching end of the play. This, too, was one of Chekhov's explorations of new form: of diminishing the theatrical convention of direct monologues in contemporary plays in a way to recreate real life.

I was trying to work out why Mr Andrews had not begun to deal with Chekhov's very specific, and famous instruction which is in his very own version of the play, to wit: "He (Kostia) destroys his notebooks and writing. Two minutes of this" and, instead, simply have Kostia close his laptop and move to the suicide room. Surely I thought, if you want to ignore one of the most famous moments of the real life in Chekhov's play you at least delete all your stored modern media files by putting the laptop in a bucket of water or by filling the available kitchen sink with water and destroying it, by immersing it - that might take two minutes and you still could fulfil both the Chekhov Russian moment and the Andrews contemporary Australian moment of rushing to visible self-destruction.

In this production there are four performances that withstand the inconsistent hand of the direction of this production of a new version of Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL.

Judy Davis, as the actress/mother, Irina Arkadina, is miraculous in her burning integrity to the writing of Chekhov and in her struggle with the production direction by Mr Andrews. Ms Davis honours, incongruously well, both demands on her skills. She is so simple in her subtleties of deeply considered and wonderfully expressive nuances of character contradictions and revelations, that they could be missed if you are not paying attention. So minutely complex, and yet writ large, are they to catch. The humour and the tragedy of a self-aware narcissist struggling with the ravages of fleeting time is positively splendid. Immensely entertaining and psychologically incisive. She often has no support of complex reaction from her other actors to show all the range of this woman's behaviour. That Ms Davies still finds a way to do that is a demonstration of command of great technique and invention, and ensemble generosity, for she does not expose what she does not, is not, receiving from others.

Billie Brown too, as Dr Dorn, masterfully steers his way through the new contemporary references in this version of the play and yet holds firmly onto a conception of the character in his expression that is highly conscious of the needs of the Russian Chekhov character. Subtle and deep. Anita Hegh, in the lesser opportunities of Polina provided by Chekhov, too, creates a life force that has a sense of journey and destiny though the time of the play. John Gaden, as Sorin, also makes a mark despite the relative superficiality of the other players, a mark of his experience and wisdom from the practice of his craft.

Of the other actors, who in their careers, especially in other mediums, have demonstrated great skills, there is a lack of real nuance of character. They generally play what is on the page without much depth of a considered life force outside the chosen moments that Chekhov has considered to select for them. The great challenge of creating a two year journey between act three and act four of THE SEAGULL is the real test of the actors who venture into this play to create. How to bring that time passing and to communicate it expressively is the challenge and requires a discipline of creativity and invention of much sophistication. Sometimes the other actors, here, appear to be playing a concept of character and it is sometimes at the expense of the life force that Chekhov has observed through his time scheme and provided subtle clues for creation.

Emily Barclay playing Masha, dressed by Dale Ferguson, as a fashionably coutured black 'goth' in tottering high heels, seems much too worldly and knowing to stay willingly on this farm. Why this theatrical and emotionally intelligent woman does not simply pack her bags, as played by Ms Barclay, get in her father's ute and drive to Sydney instead of marrying the thick headed, spectacle-wearing bore of a pedant clown, Semyon Medvedenko (Gareth Davies) is way beyond me. Is it that she is a hopeless (insert drug of choice) addict? A concept of character is embraced but two years and marriage and pregnancy and motherhood and alcoholic despair hardly seems to have touched her by the end of the play. Besides, the acting choices that Ms Barclay gives us here, there is very little sub-textual justification or explanation of what she thinks is happening to Masha.

Dylan Young as Konstantin Treplev, is possible to believe in the first act. Brash, naive and immature in all his relationships. In the second act he comes in wet after shooting a seagull, and then presumably seeking it in the nearby lake (a remarkable clean shot is Kostia, that bird has not a mark on it - no blood, nothing, almost pristine, didn't even appear to be wet, unlike the shooter?!) - a melodramatic gesture by Mr Young. In act three Mr Young struggles to capture the vulnerability with his mother, not a hint of the complex, possibly Oedipal psyche - simply a sulking, jealous young boy, hardly the expelled university man of the first act. He has not developed any relationship with the other men in the play, neither of his champions, Sorin or Dorn or his love and literary rival, Trigorin, and, in this performance, features as an insecure and psychologically wet puppy with no sense of explaining his obsession for Nina or the two years passing - no sense of the moderately, successful published author of some public note. In fact he is, two years later, wearing the same clothes. Who finishes as the shot seagull, in Chekhov's play? This performance, relatively, diminishes the central focus that he should have, alongside the Nina developments.

Maeve Dermody as Nina, did not appear to have any complex sense, either, of this ambitious and heroic woman. Abused and traduced, struggling through the rough of the real world, it is Nina that will survive and possibly rise above her silly provincial immaturities. No suicide for her, but healthy battle with enhancing life. Real life will enhance the nature of the woman not destroy it. Nina says so in the famous last act and we see her regrets, frustrations but ability to move forward and on. She has found the way to use life to create for the theatre. The sense of the arc of the character as created in the moments on stage by Ms Dermody lacks the indirect revelations of the unwritten sub-textual demands of this writer. ‘What I say and do is enough’, it seemed to me, was the approach taken by Ms Dermody. It is not, for a successful Chekhov performance, a more richly and imagined, invented biography of a life force is necessary to bring the full potential of the character to life for the audience.. Again, a conceptual view that is too simplistic in its expression on the stage.

David Wenham, on film and television has the capacity to overwhelm one with an attractive charismatic power. But his performance of the writer, love interest, Aleksei Trigorin, is lack lustre and, frankly, underwhelmingly boring. The great exposition of the process of the creative intrigues of being a writer in act two, was delivered in such a comatose automaton of seated energy, that it passed by without a single original or impressive mark. The internal needs of the character have to find a mode of expression for the stage- some clues to the complexities must be signalled. There are no cameras for close ups to reveal the inner life - the theatre requires another technique. Chekhov demands another technique, hence the Stanislavsky explorations into acting with the Moscow Art Theatre Company.

In fact if Mr Andrews wanted to continue his experiments of camera usage to tell the stories in his productions on stage, THE SEASON AT SARSPARILLA and MEASURE FOR MEASURE, then, this production with such a propensity of film actors could have, probably benefited from the continuation of such concepts. The great scene of act three left Ms Davis, unfairly, with all of the heavy lifting, in fact, her set scenes of character revelation, that with her son, Kostia and then with her wayward lover, Trigorin, required her too almost play both the other parts, so under-charged appeared the other two actors.

My conversations with other audience members over the past two weeks have generally reflected disappointment and puzzlement, for the press have been, once again, extremely impressed by this production. I cannot see it. There is initial exhilaration with the audacity of Mr Andrews' version of this great play. There is some exhilaration, or nostalgia splurge from the setting. I wonder if it is just the exhilaration of philistine vulgarity, that I experienced?

When reading the press responses and blog posts on this production, it gives me pause over the legendary productions of others, similarly lauded. I am been led to doubt the critical response that I have absorbed over people like Peter Stein, and Peter Brook, for example. The opening song of the musical LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS: “I Read it in the Papers, Didn' you, It Must be True”, rings, in my head. What should I believe? The experience of myself or the press. Am I really so out of step with what theatre is? Whither goes the contemporary theatre? Is it relevant to me? I hope so. You know, dear diary, I know so.

I can see a production by Mr Andrews with a number of his usual flourishes, but there is a careless attention to Chekhov, even to the respect of the authorship of this version of the text - his own work. How much control or sense of detail is present in this work? It is undoubtedly full of ideas but they are not disciplined in their execution or consistently detailed with the text. Some of the actors seem to be floundering in solving the directorial dilemmas - they appear as obstacles, obfuscations to clarity in the hands of some of these actors. Those actors with more experience in this kind of dramatic literature and form of expression seem to have found their way. Others with less knowledge or experience, do not seem to have done so, and are less than what they could be with a director that could help actors solve problems of choice.

THE SEAGULL is a grave disappointment. It is so wonderful to see Ms Davis on stage. If only she had asked for Aubrey Mellor to direct her in this play, or George Oglivie. Benedict Andrews, for me, does not know what he wants to do with this play or doesn't have the maturity of form or skill for working with with actors to do it justice. A few years ago I saw a production by Thomas Ostermeir of Tennessee Williams A CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. What was great about that production was the intellectual liberties that Mr Ostermier had taken coupled with real skills of staging, an apparent rapport with his actors and a heightened respect for the writer and his objectives and intentions - this was a production of a mature artist. Mr Andrews does not have all of these qualities in hand in this production of Anton Chekhov's THE SEAGULL.

  1. The SEAGULL by Anton Chekhov, in a version by Benedict Andrews. Currency Press, 2011.
  2. The SEAGULL by Anton Chekhov, in a version by Martin Crimp. Faber and Faber, 2006.
  3. CHEKHOV: 4 PLAYS & 3 JOKES, Sharon Marie Carnicke, 2009.
  4. THE BREAKING STRING - THE PLAYS OF ANTON CHEKHOV, Maurice Valery. Oxford University Press, 1966.
  5. CHEKHOV'S PLAYS - AN OPENING INTO ETERNITY, Richard Gilman. Yale University Press, 1995.
  6. LECTURES ON RUSSIAN LITERATURE, Vladimir Nabokov. Picador, 1982.


Niall Tangney said...

Thanks for your detailed review/s; i always enjoy reading them after i go to see plays. I went with my sister and we had quite different experiences in terms of seating. I was seated on the far left flank on the end of row D, and she was in a seat at the very back, row Z or whatever it is. She, being so far away, had some problems hearing some of the actors, and the smoke obscured the view as well at times, whilst in my position i also could not see part of what was happenning in the shack.

Anonymous said...

$50 and I couldn't see half the production! Perhaps Andrews felt he hadn't incited quite enough rage over the years ...

Although I have been irritated by several Shakespeare producitons in which that wonderful language has played second fiddle to Andrews' 'vision', I have usually found his productions interesting and provocative. And I know to expect a mighty big stamp.

But not being able to see ... Felt like he gave us the bird.

Brad said...

I enjoyed your insightful review immensely. A flip side to that of James Waites and Diana Simmonds. Although critical response to Belvoir's "The Seagull" has been overwhelmingly positive, I have seen other reviews sharing your mixed response to the production whole, with the only real constant being the sheer magnificence of Judy Davis' performance as Arkadina. With all due respect for Benedict Andrews' proclivity for theatrical SFX, I wonder to what could have been if this Seagull had been under a different guidance. While I don't believe it was within Judy Davis' power to simply ask for Aubrey Mellor to direct (this was Benno's show, perspex box and all...), I would venture to add that maybe Judy Davis herself could have done wonders if she had directed Seagull instead.

Anonymous said...

I had an obscured view, too, which is unforgivable in a production by highly professional theatre people. This was a brave attempt at a contemporary Chekhov which failed miserably and was turned into television Chekhov, what was that family show on Channel 7 called?
Kevin, get your spelling of Thomas Ostermeier right ... Mari PS Tried to post name and URL but was told it contained illegal figures, to I had to go Anonymous in order to get it posted

Jane E Seymour said...

I have to confess right away I have always had a love/hate relationship with Chekhov. Having been in a few productions of his plays (one was good, the others were awful productions) which as an actor I loved. Then I wrote about his plays whilst studying Theatre at UNSW which I hated.

But this bi-polar attitude doesn't stop me from seeing productions of his plays. And I'm glad I saw the Belvoir production because on the face of it, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the re-figureing of the setting & the set design: brought back memories of going off on budget summer holidays up to Tuggerah Lakes with family & assorted friends & cousins. Doesn't get much more Australian than that.

I allowed myself to get swept up with the stage trafic & the moments of shared intimacies between charactes. I did love seeing Miss Davis on stage but that didn't take anything away from all the actors; their monents of personal revalations - brittle or otherwise - I enjoyed too.I loved the glass cube & the falling black snow/rain/sleet. And yes, the deadly gunshot at the end - heard but not seen.

Strong & assured performances with a great grip on their dialogue ensured that over 2 hours of Chekhov passed with satisfying pace. And it was funny, a sort of cruel grey humour at the expense of someone else, but I laughed anyway.

Yet something was missing. I gave this some thought but couldn't pin it down. And then I was talking to a friend who loves Theatre & goes to see almost everything. I mentioned this 'missing' feeling to her & straight away she pinned that down for me...."you know Jane I loved the production but often the characters just didn't seem to be connecting with each other, the actors seemed to be avoiding eyelines so as to prevent full engagement with each other. But they were such good actors I didn't feel cheated". And that's what was missing for me too,I couldn't have said it better than that.

But to be sure, I'm very glad I saw the production & I'm now back 'in love' with Chekhov.

James Waites said...

Kevin, this is a wonderful and bold review from you and I want to congratulate you for having the guts and for putting so much work into it. Personally I liked the show. But you are not the only one who had problems with it and it is important that no-one feels intimidated into thinking there is something wrong with them in the face of so much star power.

The matter of obstructed sight-lines is a separate issue - and again there are an increasing number of complaints. This is scandalous and inexcusable from a designer who knows the this theatre space so well. Informal chat going round suggests management don't care. I can't vouch for that - but a BIG worry that people paying top dollar (or any dollar in that theatre) are not seeing the show I saw.

On the creative level, you offer so many intricate insights I won't even begin to list them. You certainly made me think through many aspects of the show. Thanks so much for pitching in and helping in the much needed cultivation of debate.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin
I saw Seagull last night (8 July). To see Judy Davis on stage again was worth the otherwise painful and boring experience of what seemed to me the fruits of self indulgent direction and design. And why can't actors look at each other? Wish Mr Andrews had taken notice of your comments. Cheers Pat East

Mr Mink said...

Kevin, this comment is seriously late obviously, as I went to NZ for 2 weeks immediately after the production I saw in late July. With the result I cannot remember (at the best of times) that much of the particular parts of the production which you have analysed in quite some detail. I would agree that the second half of the show simply seemed to trail off somewhat in terms of tension and development etc compared to the first. As my friend said, what happened in the second half? I cannot really analyse whether this was the script as developed and staged or perhaps even the performances.

On which note, both yourself and Mr Waites somewhat rhapsodise about Judy Davis and her performance. Apart from the fact that it took me a little while to realise it was indeed She, I was of course looking forward to her rare appearance amongst us on the stage. Whether it was her superior range and control (as you and James seem to say in summary), nevertheless I was not as impressed as you were. At one somewhat histrionic point in the first half I actually thought she was almost channeling/parodying a Jennifer Saunders performance in Ab Fab. Not sure whether this is evidence of her real attention or of her craft thanks. I would have to be somewhat sceptical of what I must call the Our Cate halo effect - a rare and treasured appearance before us so it must be divinely brilliant - sorry, but not always.

I thought the fibro shack setting was basically a good re-imagining of the dacha or whatever - but really perspex cubes, do we have to go there again? This has the possibility to become a Belvoir cliche if I see this again inside 5 or preferably 10 years.

Mr Mink said...

Kevin, I did say in my previous comment that I could not work out why the thing went somewhat flat in the second half. There I was, I had the script in the programme and determined to take it with me to NZ and read it and try and work it out. However as I am the world's laziest (non) reader I did not manage this, so perhaps any comments by me should be disqualified?!