Carolyn Backhouse, Samara Maclaren, Stephen Billington, Richard Franklin, Andrea Hall, Rob Heaps, Morgan James, Daniel Norford, Elizabeth Uter
Tennessee Williams adored Chekhov above all other writers. In particular, he adored Chekovs The Seagull, a play which spoke directly to him about his life and his experience of writing.
He saw in his own youthful work echoes of Constantin, The Seagulls troubled young playwright, and as he aged and his star rose, he felt himself drawn towards Trigorin, the jaded literary idol.
It was not until late in his life, however, that he decided to rewrite the play himself.
Williams was 70 before he first produced The Notebook of Trigorin, which he described as a ‘free adaptation’ of The Seagull, almost twice as old as Chekhov had been when he wrote it, and in his hands the storys focus shifts towards the older Trigorin and the notebook which is constantly by his side.
For Williams, Trigorin is the means by which he can infuse his own autobiographical details into the play. In doing so he turns the character of Trigorin into a bisexual and allows him most of the best lines, which pithily summarise a life spent writing. “A writer is a madman,” Trigorin says, “probationally released.” Only familiarity keeps him with Arkadina, but it breeds a sort of contempt which Stephen Billington plays well.
Trigorin fears he will lose his talent and his relationship with Nina is therefore more about him clinging to a muse than a lover. Samara Maclaren is wholly believable as the wide-eyed inspiration that both Trigorin and Constantin desire, each for their own reasons. She is worldly in that backward kind of way that only the innocent can be.
In direct contrast to Nina, Carolyn Backhouses Arkadina is wildly over-the-top. But then that is precisely the point of this archetypal diva. The moments when Arkadina becomes most human are when she is opposite Rob Heaps intense Constantin. The oedipal sexual tension that builds as they try to salvage their long-forgotten affection is palpable. The counterpoint to this tension comes in the form of a wonderfully cantankerous performance from Richard Franklin as the elderly Sorin. He seems to slowly deteriorate before our eyes as the play progresses and his illness takes hold.
Though given a sympathetic production by Phil Willmott, the play itself is never entirely successful. It transposes events from Russia to Americas Deep South but this results in many aspects of the two worlds defiantly refusing to mix.
Morgan James Dorn becomes the embodiment of Williams distrust of doctors. He is creepily camp and utterly disinterested in the fate of Sorin, more likely to dispense a catty remark than a cure for his ailments. “If you look your age, its your punishment for taking the joke of human existence as a serious matter”, he declares. While James gives a compelling performance the character seems somehow out of place. Daniel Norfords Medvedenko and, to a lesser extent, Andrea Halls Masha are underdeveloped when they could have helped to move the plot along.
As it is we are left with a great playwright looking back on his life and ruminating. It makes for an intriguing, if flawed, meditation that shows Tennessee Williams, even in his twilight years, more than worthy of that probationary release.