Featuring the combined acting talent of Juliet Stevenson and Trevor Nunn’s lauded boy-Hamlet Ben Whishaw, this pared down staging of Chekhov’s tragic play should have been the highlight of the Natonal Theatre’s summer season. As it is, though visually rich and intermittently striking, Katie Mitchell’s production in the Lyttleton remains curiously underwhelming.
The difficulty stems not so much from Martin Crimp’s simplified version of the 1896 text but from the decision to completely strip away the play’s social context. Loosed from its fin de sicle setting it floats uneasily, settling in no one place in particular.
This Seagull does not take place in a country house in pre-revolutionary Russia, rather in some vast and crumbling, bare-walled building. Vicki Mortimer’s set resembles an abandoned school or asylum; it feels like a place forgotten. Onto this near-enough blank canvas Chris Davey does wonderful things with his painterly lighting design.
In its best moments the production displays a refreshing lightness of touch, drawing considerable humour from the endless Chekhovian crises. Perhaps, on occasion, too much humour, as it was difficult to take seriously Konstantin’s plight when in a previous scene Sandy McDade’s Masha had been milking every melodramatic Slavic pronouncement for its full comic potential.
A recurring motif throughout the evening is the tango. Mitchell frequently has her characters pause to perform this elegant angular dance. Though very well executed, there’s perhaps too much of the stuff, even if the physical harmony achieved through the tango provides a nice contrast to such tortured, messy relationships. It certainly provides a welcome respite from the endless interruptions of the servants, a necessary break from characters’ constant running back and forth across the stage. In this production, there’s more frantic opening and shutting of doors than in a French farce. Unfortunately all this movement has the effect of muffling a lot of dialogue, making it easy to miss large chunks of what’s being said on stage. One thing you can’t fail to hear though, is the play’s final line, which is barked rather than whispered making for an extremely abrupt and odd ending.
Juliet Stevenson exudes poise and personality as Arkadina, though she’s too grounded an actress to fully convey the character’s ego. As her son Konstantin, Ben Whishaw is rather subdued; he’s brattish and sulky when his mother spoils his play, childlike and grateful when she attends to his head wound, but its hard to have much sympathy with his artistic crisis. Sandy McDade is however excellent as the lovelorn Masha, stalking the stage like a movie star with her cropped hair, cigarette and dark glasses.
Ultimately though Mitchell’s production is very atmospheric, a powerful portrait of a strange and fading world – albeit not the one of Chekhov’s Russia – its ideas fail to knit together. It feels unanchored and unsure of itself and, as an audience member, it leaves one searching for something more.