10 July 2006

The Seagull, National Theatre - 7th July 2006

Oh lord, what an evening. I know that Chekov is all about doomy Russians falling out of love with themselves and each other, but this really was an uphill struggle all the way.

The first problem is the new translation. Martin Crimp has stripped the text down to the "bare essentials" (which is reflected in the very minimalist stage designs). The trouble is, he's stripped too much out. Supporting characters are reduced to cyphers, and their relationships pared down even further. For those of us unfamiliar with the play, this leaves us wondering "what on earth is happening?" or, more importantly "what has happened?". We are left guessing who is who, who is related to who, who has married who, who's had an affair with who...... Its a good job that Clive has seen it before, so could fill me in. Key incidents are left completely uncommented on - Konstantin apparently attempts suicide in the second act, but we hear nothing about this. We are expected to infer this from the fact that he appears with a bandage round his head in act three.

Another problem with the translation is that Crimp updates the language far too much and thus makes a mockery of the play's original period feel. From pre-revolutionary Russia (and therefore an examination of a class in decline), Crimp has taken the text into a time machine which has dumped it somewhere vaguely in the 30s or 40s. I'm sure phrases like "I've made a complete balls up of my life" and ""Why don't you just piss off?" are fun to say on stage but they really don't fit in with the rest of the text. There is a passing reference to Munch's "The Scream".

The play is further isolated from its origins by the costumes. Characters appear in modern black costumes at the start, donning shiny 1980s look suits or vaguely 40's style frocks with plunging necklines and complicated gores, sport modern hairstyles and beatnik glasses...... Moscow was never like this! At least Vicki Mortimer's sets - all flaky plaster and bare boards - reflect the empty lives and crumbling relationships taking place within them. But even they start to pall after a while. Particularly when Arkadina's servants spend most of the first half rushing in and out banging doors behind them, taking plates in and out (each servant carrying two plates - have they never heard of trays? - and soup should be served from a tureen on the table, not brought from the kitchen already in individual bowls), picking up cases, taking them out, bringing them back.......this household is obviously overstaffed! In the end, it starts to look like there are two plays happening on the same stage - a farce in the background and a tragicomedy in the front. And all that door banging and clumping across the stage masks a lot of important dialogue (well, what is left of it).

Juliet Stephenson makes a fine Arkadina. But she's far too young to play someone who is meant to be a fading actress, clinging on to past glories (both professional and sexual) in the manner of Desiree Armfeldt in "A Little Night Music". And there's too little of the "Grande Dame" of the theatre and too much of the "silly little me" girlishness. Ben Wishaw plays Konstantin as a petulant, sulky and camp little bratling, so its very difficult to sympathise or empathise with him, and his transformation to "serious literary type" in the second half fails to wash. Sandy McDade is incredibly irritating as Masha - obviously from a little known suburb of St. Petersburg called Tobermory. Apparently Masha is the housekeeper, but in this production she vamps around the stage in her little black frock, sporting cropped hair and waving incessant cigarettes like Hazel the MacWitch from Rentaghost crossed with a refugee from the KitKat Club ("Och, aye'm in mourrrrrrning for ma life!"). And I know one is supposed to suspend disbelief at the theatre, but she's referred to in the dialogue as being 22. She's at least double that, by the looks of her. Hattie Morahan plays Nina as a breathless, well scrubbed, gangling ingenue and this makes her elopement and illegitimate pregnancy rather hard to believe. In the first act, she is apparently desperately worried that her overbearing father will find out she's appearing in Konstantin's play. That doesn't stop her from stripping down to her scanties and high heels and staggering around the stage with a large lightbulb attached to her back.

And the seagull itself? In the first half, it was reduced to being tacked onto the inside of the lid of a leather box - I half expected it to bounce out on a spring to the accompaniment of "Pop Goes the Seagull". How much more realistic it would have been if it had been carried in, a tattered bundle of feathers and blood. And in the second half, it has (apparently) been stuffed and mounted inside a large glass box the size of a travelling trunk, but we don't see this as its placed on stage in such a way that nobody in the audience can see inside the box, which rather misses the point of having it, don't you think? If the seagull is a metaphor (and a very heavy handed one at that), it makes it rather absurd to have it metaphorically on stage.

Having seen Katie Mitchell's superb "Three Sisters" a couple of years ago, I expected much more from this evening than I eventually got. The rather lukewarm applause from the rest of the audience makes me think that my view was shared by others. Maybe, like me, they had put their hand up to their head and found that "The Seagull" had crapped all over them.

No comments: