First performed in 1896, The Seagull is Chekhov’s first masterpiece. It might be for this reason that the play exhibits all of his typical thematic qualities in a way that feels very fresh. Between youthful idealism and old age disillusion, the play carries a vivid sense of Chekhov slowly mastering his artistic ideas, to which this production renders full colour – and what better place to stage this poetic meditation on unrequited love and unfulfilled lives than amongst the lush scenery of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre at sunset?
The play revolves around a quartet of characters: the fading actress Arkadina; her younger lover, Trigorin, a famous but frustrated writer; her son Konstantin, a budding symbolist playwright; and the burgeoning actress Nina. Each of the characters serves as a dramatic foil to one another, enabling Chekhov to ponder the value of art, the futility of life and the unattainability of contentment. As the story narrows its focus to the touching love story of Konstantion’s desperate quest for Nina, the play’s outcome is a dark one – and in classic Chekhovian fashion, offers no answers to its many questions.
The play is notable as a parody of nineteenth-century Russian melodrama: where drama was traditionally centred on action and momentum, little actually happens in The Seagull. Dramatic events happen offstage, and characters are emphasised over plot, so that it is the lives and feelings of the characters that become the performance on the stage. Chekhov portrays life as art rather than art as life, and this is very apparent in Matthew Dunster’s production: a mirror is symbolically suspended over the stage, reminding us of this inter-reflective relationship, as though blurring a line between theatre and reality.
Chekhov labelled The Seagull a comedy in three acts, but tragedy lurks beneath the surface of all his greatest plays – and in this production, it is brought to the fore. The most powerful moment of the play is the final scene in which, hearing a gun shot, Arkadina and company exit the household in confusion while Konstantin’s body floats across the lake into view. Here, the chaos and disarray of existence is contrasted by his deathly tranquility: ‘the rest is silence’ as Hamlet would say, and by featuring Konstantin’s demise directly on stage, the play’s relationship to the Shakespearean text is intriguingly illuminated.
But what this production most succeeds in drawing out is Chekhov’s recurring, tragicomic interest in the passage of time, and how we cope with it: while Janie Dee’s Arkadina grows playfully impetuous as her beauty subsides, Matthew Tennyson’s Konstantin becomes painfully tortured in his loss of hope. Along with Sabrina Bartlett’s naive Nina, who becomes deranged after her ruin, all of the characters come to reflect the changing symbol of the seagull: first presented as a living bird, then killed and reduced to a stuffed piece of art, they similarly struggle to maintain any pretence of freedom.
Both with its fine acting and imaginative realisation, this production of The Seagull does justice to Chekhov’s inaugural work. It faithfully captures the playwright’s aim for simplicity and truth in a way that is both comforting and disturbing – and, helped by the magical open surroundings of Regent’s Park, achieves that ethereally lifelike quality of Chekhov’s art. A terrific production.