he last decade of the nineteenth century (fin de siecle) must have been a traumatic decade. Apparently Anton Chekhov’s 1895 The Seagull is a comedy– okay it’s a ‘dark comedy’, if existentialism, failed love, suicide and nihilism get you chuckling.
Daniel Evans has refashioned The Seagull (he’s good at revision as Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore demonstrates) for contemporary audiences by filling it with pop culture jokes. My fave line “He’s one Rocky Horror Show revival from Centrelink” (apologies if I’ve misquoted).
Chekhov is difficult. Confession – I might have been spotted leaving a London production at intermission a few months ago. Chekhov’s heavy dialogue and nineteenth century dramatic sensibility make this play less ‘entertaining’ – in fact, The Seagull was, at first, a famous failure until Stanislavski’s production (1898). It could be boring because it’s all about the talk and not about the action. Thus actors basically have to stand and deliver because movement can lose their voice. Brian Lucas as Sorin was an audience favourite because his whimsical portrait of a man going mad includes erratic movements that supplement his dialogue.
Basically The Seagull follows 10 characters (that’s a large ensemble, hey?) who struggle with artistic philosophies, success/failure and familial versus familial love. One summer they converge on a country estate – conflicts ensue. The second part of the play (two years’ later) explores how the summer changed their lives. Because the play focuses on performance, theatre and television references abound and the laughs come from Australian television and musical theatre references (Wicked is particularly targeted). The musical number at the end of the fourth act is a counterpoint to the heavy drama. Visually, Kieran Swann has filled the studio with sites that can provide distraction during the longer monologues: quotes from Chekov are projected on a wall, a neon-lit exit, an actor’s changing station and a music mixer station.
For the Chekhov neophyte, Evans’ The Seagull is a great production. It’s a long play – so be prepared for 130 minutes of theatre – but Evans has inserted enough contemporary humour to entertain and still explicate the typical Chekhovian themes. Perhaps in another hundred years people might be wondering what’s so funny about Wicked.
Words by Toni Johnson-Woods