April 22, 2000: Chekhov, The Seagull

Barbican, Royal Shakespeare Company (originating earlier this year at the Swan, Stratford), directed by Adrian Noble

A production that grows on one as the evening proceeds. Much emphasis on passion, on feeling, along with a very much extroverted dramatic action: a very effective combination. In Act I the irascible, preoccupied Konstantin fusses with his makeshift stage, criticizes the workers for being late in finishing the construction, and sends away some who have come too early. But then Nina appears, running on from downstage right, all the way across the stage and, still running, into Konstantin’s arms—in the air. Holding her off the ground in a tight embrace he backs a few steps to ease the momentum; then, still in his arms, Nina and he begin their dialogue. This combination of extravagant expressiveness, of super-strong impressiveness, with a boldly rendered action sets the directorial keynote for the production. This is Adrian Noble, artistic director of the RSC, at work.

In Chekhov, placement of characters and action is particularly important; a well-maintained sense of ensemble is crucial to the articulation of Chekhov’s sense of the interpenetration of the characters’ lives. Noble’s blocking and movement in this respect are well-nigh flawless, and show themselves most effectively in the penultimate scene of the last act. Here, the rest of the company retreat for a late supper behind the conservatory doors upstage, where we can still see them and hear the murmur of their voices in conversation, leaving Konstantin alone, in despair over his failure as a writer, at his desk. The outside/inside effect of the wide, deep platform raised perhaps six inches off the stage floor and serving for an exterior setting in Acts I and II and an interior for the rest of the play lends scope for Noble to bring Nina on in Act IV, once again from extreme down right; but in great contrast to her Act I entrance, she wanders slowly across the stage, along the downstage perimeter of the platform, then up the far side, where Konstantin having heard a noise “outside” finds her and draws her inside for their final scene together.

The play is full of clear, effectively stated sequences like this. The ending, too, is effective in the same way. After Nina leaves, Konstantin methodically tears up all his writings; he tears up a lot of writings and not merely a metonymic page or two; then exits. We surmise what he is going to do, for we have seen him bandaged earlier, after a botched attempt at suicide. The stage is vacant for a good moment — time enough to register the emptiness — and then the chair placed against the upstage doors is pushed away; the company having finished their supper return and begin to play cards. They play cards. Then we hear the noise of a gun going off, startling the company and interrupting the game. Doctor Dorn goes to investigate. They wait. He returns and makes light of the event: it was only a medicine bottle in his bag exploding. They return to their game. Dorn doesn’t join them but instead picks up some current journal from Konstantin’s desk and leafs idly through it. Slowly. Then he moves downstage and asks Trigorin to settle a question for him, taking Trigorin down below the gaming table. “Get her [Arkadina] out of here.” Take her away from here, he says. The fact is, Konstantin has just shot himself. Then a slow fade to black.

The purposeful attenuation of this action is masterful in its pacing and blocking, and timing. We know the inevitable as soon as we hear the report of the gun, if not before, but we must then see it reified, made palpable and real, through the ensuing sequence. Noble gives each moment, each second, even, its due. No one could say about this production what is sometimes said about Chekhov’s plays: that they lack a coherent forward action.

And yet Noble gives Chekhov’s characters all the scope that Chekhov himself gives them to declare themselves, to betray themselves. There is no conflict aesthetically speaking between character establishment and development, on the one hand, and the pursuit of action. Nor is it correct to say, as is often said, that in Chekhov character is action — a foolish idea. It is just that Chekhov gives them leave, and plenty of opportunity, to speak. In doing so they reveal themselves, almost compulsively, but simultaneously they establish, refine, and deepen their relationships with other characters. The action arises — naturally, I want to say — from these developing relationships.

The relationship most central to the ongoing movement of the play is, of course, Nina and Trigorin’s love affair, which leaves her bruised and battered but still able to go on, though she is still hopelessly in love with him. Her declaration of that enduring love — it just is blurted out, in her last scene with Konstantin —  is simultaneously what gives her the strength to go on and sends Konstantin into a despair so deep that he can only ease the pain through oblivion.

One virtue of this current RSC production is that it offers a transparent view of the play itself (there is no Andrei Serban here, hoking up Chekhov to show us how good he is at making an old, out-of-date play viable again for audiences in our time). I loved this production. The acting was without exception excellent, and notably the Nina, Justine Waddell; this is only her third professional appearance! But Richard Pascoe, a hoary veteran of fully a half-century of theatrical performing — he was a member of the Old Vic Company as far back as 1950 — was also fine as Sorin, the ineffectual brother of Arkadina. Penelope Wilton seemed a little too old for Arkadina; she is easily fifty and looks it. And the Trigorin, Nigel Terry, looks much older than his character’s age, fixed by Konstantin’s phrase “not yet forty” in Act I. No matter. A wonderful production, which seems in retrospect very British and yet faithful to the peculiar Russian-ness of this first Chekhovian success.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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