Tag Archives: Chekhov

“The Seagull” at the Lyric Hammersmith

Simon Stephens is a busy man. This week his play Heisenberg received its UK premiere and his new version of Anton Chekhov’s classic has opened. Dauntlessly tackling the 1895 piece, full of unrequited love triangles, the passion and depression in the original comes into focus. There’s no period frippery – not a samovar in sight – no agendas and the sometimes ponderous discussions of Art (capital A) feel unforced. The language is efficiently modern and startlingly down to earth: “get a grip,” says one character. Stephens has grabbed Chekhov ferociously.

There’s plenty of fresh insight and energy all around, abetted by Sean Holmes’ direction and a strong cast. The production is marked by direct addresses, admittedly not all successful, that illustrate a determination to engage the audience. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin has an indie rock star vibe (despite the classical mix in the show’s excellent soundtrack) that makes him feel modern. His unrequited love, Nina, gains a similarly contemporary touch from Adelayo Adedayo’s performance. The character is desperate for fame, fame, fatal fame. But when that dead seagull is presented by Konstantin in a plastic bag she wallops him with it: good girl! Getting in the way of their love, Nicholas Gleaves plays the writer Trigorin with a dash of aloof celebrity that aids the coherence and relevance of Stephens’ approach.

Cherrelle Skeete as Marcia
Cherrelle Skeete as Marcia

The real star of The Seagull is the actress Irina, and Lesley Sharp grasps this part magnificently. While her desperate love for Trigorin is clear, and explicitly depicted, the production calls for her comic skills and Sharp delivers. This snobby Sloane gets laughs for every “darhling” she utters. There are a lot of laughs all around in this production, with the play’s many characters each getting a turn, as desires battle with a cynical cruelty that’s surprisingly funny. Stephens has a great eye for eccentricity and the crazy things this boho crowd gets up to. As the depressed Masha, renamed Marcia with an impressive performance from Cherrelle Skeete, observes: “People are just odd.”

Humour is maintained for a long time. I suspect it might annoy some people. But we know The Seagull is a tragedy and changing key is Holmes’ biggest achievement. For the final scene, mental health issues come to the fore. We see how obsessive, in their own ways, all these characters are. A lot of anger is revealed and not just in the case of our young lovers. The delusions and detachments we’ve been laughing at become dangerous amongst such fragility and an acute sense of the toll time has taken on all. Stephens appreciates the complexity of Chekhov’s vision and has orchestrated it in a new and exciting manner.

Until 4 November 2017

www.lyric.co.uk

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Three Sisters” at the Union Theatre

Director Phil Willmott uses award-winning American playwright Tracy Letts’ version of Chekhov’s masterpiece to deliver a fine new production with wide appeal. The adaptation, faithful to the structure and events in the original, is direct, forceful and clear – all qualities embraced and amplified by cast and creative team.

Celine Abrahams, Ivy Corbin and Molly Crookes play the eponymous siblings conscientiously. Trying to work out how to live while yearning for Moscow, each performer injects plenty of energy and angst. Joined by Benjamin Chandler as their younger brother the consistent impression is of brattish siblings suffering from “endless winter and talk”. All four performers develop their characters with precision to crisis pitch.

It’s the partners and lovers who benefit most in this production. Francesca Burgoyne, as detested sister-in-law Natasha, reveals the layers of her shrewish role well. Stephen Rodgers makes Masha’s husband more substantial than the wimp he appears on the page. And Masha’s lover, the philosophising Vershinin, becomes especially moving due to the skill of Ashley Russell. Two younger roles, soldiers in love with Irina, also stand out due to a careful performance by Tom Malmed as Tusenbach and Hugo Nicholson’s virile energy in the role of Solyony.

Willmott manoeuvres his cast expertly; it feels as if theatre-in-the-round is the only way to stage this play with debates and ideas flying around. The pace is speedy, once or twice too swift, with no fussy touches to diminish tragic events or lessen the seriousness of frustration. This is an angry show and emotions explode as often as they simmer. If there’s a fault, Chekhov’s humour is ignored. There’s little sense of the ridiculousness of situations and few attempts to raise even a smile. But the melancholy air of the play is aimed for with confidence, and that target hit with resolution.

Until 4 February 2017

www.uniontheatre.biz

Photo by Scott Rylander

“The Seagull” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Given that The Seagull opens with its hero Konstantin putting on an outdoor performance, Regent’s Park feels a pretty good match for Chekhov’s play. The stunning venue is enhanced by Jon Bausor’s splendid design – a giant mirror hangs above the action, literally adding another dimension to reflect upon. Matthew Dunster’s production looks fantastic, but sadly there’s too much chasing after laughs so the play falls curiously flat.

The problem isn’t so much with Torben Betts’ new adaptation of the play – although the language is sometimes too direct, it can be good to shake up a classic. This version is easy to follow and feels modern. Rather, it’s Dunster’s emphasis on the comedy; he gets plenty of laughs but the humour doesn’t build and the play’s more poignant moments feel thrown away. Some characters suffer dreadfully: Medviedenko, the teacher, is reduced to a comedian with just one punch line, the ever-miserable Masha a wailing drunk and the young leads are simply too gauche. Matthew Tennyson and Sabrina Bartlett hold the stage as the aspiring artists Konstantin and Nina, and their naiveté gets laughs but both actors aren’t given a chance to delve deeper.

Other roles fare better. The writer Trigorin’s ego fascinates. Alex Robertson makes him funny and irritating – a petulant take on the character that’s interesting. And Janie Dee’s Arkadina manages to be at once jolly and roundly three-dimensional. Dunster is strongest with group scenes, highlighting uncomfortable dynamics as an “angel of the awkward silence” is said to descend. Also interesting are the two servants (Tom Greaves and Tara D’Arquian), who giggle at innuendo and silently respond to events.

The production also has the novel device of using a voiceover for character’s thoughts. It’s certainly startling but privileges certain players too much. Frustratingly, despite being inside their heads, we don’t feel any closer to them, and this internal dialogue is used indiscriminately and again mostly just for laughs. Nice try, but this showy device is symptomatic of a production that tries hard but doesn’t hit anything… apart from that poor seagull, of course.

Until 11 July 2015

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Three Sisters” at the Southwark Playhouse

In most productions of Three Sisters, the eponymous heroines yearn to leave their provincial home and return to Moscow. In a new version of Chekhov’s play, from Anya Reiss at the Southwark Playhouse, the sisters want to return to London. Well, who wouldn’t? Chekhov’s tragic melancholia is still present, along with his philosophical preoccupations and essential concerns, but the action occurs in the Middle East in the present day.

It isn’t a perfect transposition. The sisters endure their famous ennui in the shadow of a military compound and embassy. Where they are and what they are doing there isn’t made explicit, which is vaguely frustrating. It seems somehow off to hear soldiers in modern fatigues wishing for real work. With all the phones and iPads pushing you into the present, attitudes to marriage jar and the stiff upper lips seem incongruous.

But Reiss’ twist with the setting brings home the isolation of Chekhov’s characters. There’s a nice motif of superstition, arising from people under pressure, and an unblinking eye on the dramatic potential of the scenario. I suspect inconsistencies aren’t a big concern: adding karaoke to Chekhov indicates a mischievous streak. Incidentally, the humour generally owes less to the original source than the rest of the production. There’s an energy to the writing that powers the whole thing along. Best of all, these sisters are far from sententious and self-pitying – which are welcome interpretations.

The production itself is of the highest standard. Russell Bolam directs with a deft touch; there’s plenty of action, a swift pace and performances full of natural feeling. Again, issues arise from Reiss’ new version. The servants and Masha’s cuckolded husband being local proves distracting (especially in relation to a fine performance from Tom Ross-Williams). Both Michael Garner’s Doctor Chebutykin and Paul McGann’s Vershinin – the voices of age and experience – seem flattened and these talented actors a little wasted.

The focus is on youth, and a trio of performances from the leads does not disappoint. Olivia Hallinan plays Olga with a resolute edge, all self control until a final tragedy (watch her legs as shocking news is broken to her). Holliday Grainger takes onboard the realism in the production: fresh and appealing as the young Irina and a captivating stage presence. It’s a photo finish (and naughty of me to encourage sibling rivalry), but I thought Emily Taaffe best – her impassioned Masha has a constrained energy that is riveting and her performance packs the most emotional punch. These three high achievers make this interesting production well worth seeing.

Until 3 May 2014

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Written 9 April 2014 for The London Magazine

“Uncle Vanya” at The Print Room

It’s the fourth time that writer Mike Poulton has adapted Uncle Vanya and it seems that practice makes perfect. Chekhov’s masterful exploration of the human condition is presented boldly, directly and, most notably, with a great deal of humour. Artistic director of The Print Room Lucy Bailey takes charge with a deft touch that highlights the play’s rich complexity. And this tiny theatre has the coup of a stellar cast, led by the magnificent Iain Glenn in the title role. Glenn gives a riveting performance of immense variety and subtlety.

It’s the story of a disastrous summer sojourn. After Vanya’s beloved sister dies, he devotes himself to the professor she married. But Vanya realises the man, played in fine comic style by David Yelland, is a pompous fool while falling in love with his brother-in-law’s new wife. At the same time she starts an affair with his best friend, the excellent William Houston, who in turn is loved by Vanya’s niece Sonya. It’s no big surprise that none of them is happy.

The way Poulton plays with this Chekhovian cliché of misery is delightful. Everyone is bored and everyone is exhausted all the time. Even the roses are “mournful”.  All of the players are driven to drink and bemoan the “inexplicable” fact they are old (regardless of their carefully spaced ages). It’s enough to make anyone flee the countryside. But Chekhov and Poulton can see the funny side of boredom as it mixes with the most potent emotions of love and jealousy. Add a touch of madness and you have a strange combination of farce and tragedy that comes close to describing life itself.

The desperation within Uncle Vanya, stemming from a sense of wasted life, is conveyed movingly by Glenn, while Sonya’s self-sacrificing strategy comes across an illuminating performance from Charlotte Emmerson. Alongside the family servants’ acceptance of their lot, embodied in delicious cameos from David Shaw-Parker and Marlene Sidaway, Uncle Vanya becomes a painfully funny play full of faith and grief. In this production, Uncle Vanya is as big and as clever as ever and is not to be missed.

Until 28 April 2012

www.the-print-room.org

Photo by Sheila Burnett

Written 30 March 2012 for The London Magazine

“The Seagull” at the Arcola Theatre

Dalston’s an unlikely place for a dacha. But Joseph Blatchley’s fine new production of The Seagull at the Arcola Theatre takes us to the Russian countryside in a fresh and exciting way. Working with Charlotte Pyke and John Kerr on a new translation, Chekhov’s text seems funnier and more dramatic than ever.

The new adaptation takes the young writer Konstantin’s advice to heart, creating a script that “flows freely”; full of naturalism, with judicious use of modern idioms, it is clear and pacey. In a play so crowded with art and performance, the histrionics and famous Russian gloom take on a comic twist – yet when sincerity comes forth it packs a punch.

“So much anguish, everyone in love” announces Roger Lloyd Pack’s excellent Dr. Dorn: mostly to himself since Chekhov’s characters are solipsistic despite their self-awareness. Their selfishness is played for humour by the ensemble cast. In the star role of Arkadina, the successful actress who can’t stand the spotlight being on anyone else, Geraldine James is wonderfully intense.

Arkadina’s battles are tremendous set pieces, none more so than her confrontations with her son Konstantin. Al Weaver takes the part, funny as a petulant artist, and then deeply moving as he becomes a tortured young man.

Konstantin’s love for Nina, the girl next door who wants to become an actress, is so convincing it gives the whole production a romantic air. Yolanda Kettle, in a professional debut to be proud of, plays the role charmingly, making her character’s demise all the more moving.

Nina’s downfall comes via Trigorin, in Blatchley’s version a more than usually fascinating character. Played expertly by Matt Wilkinson, the startling accusation he has been “grooming” Nina adds considerable tension, making her seduction relevant to a modern audience, and preparing the ground for a traumatic conclusion that becomes as appropriately tormented as the good doctor predicted.

Until 16 July 2011

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 16 June 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Cherry Orchard” at the National Theatre

Director Howard Davies is well known for his work on Russian classics. Last year, his production of The White Guard did phenomenally well at the Olivier Awards. His new production of The Cherry Orchard is a quality affair from a director who doesn’t rest on his laurels.

Davies is working again with designer Bunny Christie. Her set offers the first glimpse that this is something different: there’s no trace of quaint dacha here and not a samovar in sight (for that, you have to nip into the National’s bookshop for a particularly twee display), a set is a huge barn of a place, that really is dilapidated, whose owners are in dire financial straits.

Andrew Upton joins the team again with a text that is wilfully modern. Every effort has been made to make Chekhov’s story of the landowning Ranyevskaya seem contemporary. It will certainly jar on some ears. Maybe in our credit- crunched times her poverty rings a chord, but Ranyevskaya isn’t a member of the squeezed middle. She’s a frightful snob, yet her obstinate refusal to recognise the reality of her situation is conveyed with charm by Zoe Wanamaker.

There is little sense of Ranyevskaya’s journey in this production. Like her brother Gaev (James Laurenson) she seems little aware of the times she is living in. A sense of history that Chekov certainly saw as a theme of his work is diluted, the production seems more immediate and less didactic, but it’s a trade off that is debateable.

Wanamaker’s performance is generous, allowing the other characters to shine out: stories of lovers of different ages and status, all given equal weight, bring out the plays rich complexity. Kenneth Cranham is a truly revolting Firs, playing with Emily Taaffe’s Dunyasha with great cruelty. Mark Bonnar is convincing as Petya Tromfimov, one of those scholastic characters Russian dramatists love that are so difficult to perform; his impassioned relationship with Anya (Charity Wakefield) is a highlight of the evening.

Lopakhin, the merchant whose capitalism is so much at the core of The Cherry Orchard’s historic concerns, is played by Conleth Hill with passion. Hill is perfectly farouche and, if not quite believable as the businessman who could save the estate, his fragility makes his the most moving performance of the night.

All the casts’ performances are mobile, running around in a play that is usually static. The party scene is particularly raucous. These Russians know how to live it up but, of course, not how to live. The pain as they all try to find a place for themselves in their changing world easily transcends historical circumstance. Davies preserves the philosophical dilemma at the heart of The Cherry Orchard while presenting it with fresh eyes.

Until 13 August 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 18 May 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Notebook of Trigorin” at the Finborough Theatre

A ‘free adaptation’ by Tennessee Williams of Chekhov might sound like a strange idea. The Russian playwright is, well, Russian, and his works are full of reserved Slav emotions and characters who repress themselves in a manner we don’t associate with Williams. Yet Chekhov’s writing about the ‘interior life’, which made his theatre revolutionary, engaged the American writer. The Finborough Theatre gives us the chance to see his exploration in The Notebook of Trigorin, his version of The Seagull.

You might want to brush up on the original version – it makes for an interesting game of compare and contrast – but it is by no means essential and you’ll probably be enjoying this production too much to bother. Williams tightens what is already a compelling plot, and director Phil Willmott gives the action a lively pace.

The play is set in the family home of Arkadina, the most famous actress in Russia, during her infrequent visits to see her son Constantine who is looked after by her elderly brother Sorin. Accompanied by her younger lover, the writer Trigorin, she walks in on several sets of unrequited love.  Constantine is loved by Masha but adores their neighbour Nina. Masha is followed around by Medvedenko but wants nothing to do with him. Her mother Polina is obsessed by the local doctor Dorn. Arkadina’s arrival doesn’t make the situation simpler – Nina falls in love with Trigorin. In an unnecessary addition from Williams, Trigorin falls for a stable boy who goes swimming a lot. Thankfully, for brevity’s sake, he stays in the lake.

As these situations play themselves out, the characters deal with their dreams and ambitions. Constantine, played with brooding adolescent intensity by Rob Heaps, wants to be a writer. Nina (Samara MacLaren) hopes to become an actress and develops from a shy girl into an impassioned woman. Andrea Hall is wonderful as Masha, who struggles to abandon her unrequited love and marry Medvedenko, played with great charm by Daniel Norford. In a beautifully pitched performance, Lachele Carl’s Polina rails against Morgan James’s Dorn. His Doctor is one to strike from the register, a louche seducer played with great sexual presence whose treatment of Richard Franklin’s movingly vulnerable Sorin is deeply cruel.

Williams’ adaptation of the play is most noticeable with Trigorin. Stephen Billington reads his notebooks as a voiceover. This may have a strange Chandleresque quality but allows a distance between his interior voice and a wonderful performance on stage where we are never quite sure how genuine this man is. Trigorin fits that particularly American role of the flawed narrator. He is an artist first and foremost; keen to scribble down a potential story, to exploit a situation for narrative and quick to judge others.

What Trigorin and Williams share is their interest in Arkadina. Always a great role for an actress, in this version, she is combined with Williams’ other indubitable heroines. Women in genteel poverty are a common trait in his work, as are those who live their lives performing a role. Carolyn Backhouse takes on all this with great aplomb. She performs with humour and power as a woman with a fragile grip on what is precious to her and a ferocious ability to defend it.  She is like Blanche DuBois on steroids, more condemned than she might deserve to be. In the final scene, Willmott exploits this tension especially well, leading towards a dramatic tableau that reaffirms the plays concerns with the necessity and danger of artificiality. The whole of this superb cast are used. Their combined efforts more than make this production worth seeing and the play itself offers fascinating insights into both Chekhov and Williams.

Until 24 April 2010

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Scott Rylander

Written 1 April 2010 for The London Magazine