Culture Shock: ‘The Seagull’ takes wing once again
Michael West and Annie Ryan’s radical version of Chekhov’s play has the instantly recognisable energy of a long weekend with the extended family
It’s every gathering from which you can’t escape: Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in Corn Exchange’s ‘The Seagull’, in a new version by Michael West and Annie Ryan at the Gaiety Theatre from October 5th-16th as part of Dublin Theatre Festival. Photograph: Sean and Yvette Photography
The story goes that an actor in one of the earliest productions of The Seagull got short shrift from Chekhov when he contacted the playwright to ask about the symbolism of the lake around which the play is set. “Well, it’s wet,” the playwright is said to have responded. It’s a lake, in other words. Swim it, or row across it, or skim its surface with stones; it will still be wet. Sit staring across it, thinking intense thoughts about art; still wet. The lake is the lake, and it’s the things human beings get up to around it which decide their lives.
In Chekhov’s plays, the drama arises from people behaving like people – messy, impulsive, self-centred, often not particularly grown-up people – rather than from a tightly wound dramatic structure. When he wrote The Seagull, Russia, nearing the end of its autocratic regime, was beginning to “hum like a beehive”, as he put it, with the rumour of revolution, but in the gardens and rooms of his characters, everyday life lurches from torpor to chaos and back again without vast effect. It’s an instantly recognisable energy. It’s the shared Airbnb by the end of the summer; it’s the long weekend with the extended family; it’s every gathering from which you can’t escape, because some self-sabotaging part of you keeps getting drawn back to all these head-the-ball people and their head-the-ball ways.
This is the psycho-geography of The Seagull, the 1896 premiere of which was an almost scandalous failure. It did brilliantly in the hands of a new Moscow company two years later, but that its first production was such a fiasco seems cruelly fitting for a play which is so much about the difficulties which arise when several people share the same space – distracted by, as Chekhov himself put it, “little action and five tons of love” – as well as being a play openly, almost zealously, concerned with the challenges of making theatre, of writing a play.
As it opens, preparations are being made in the garden for the performance of the play which Konstantin, son of the great actress Arkadina, has written, and which will be performed by Konstantin’s beloved, the young actress Nina; Konstantin wants to break away from the old idea of the theatre and to create new forms, an entirely new approach.
In Michael West and Annie Ryan’s new version of The Seagull for The Corn Exchange, our young writer is no longer Konstantin but Constance, daughter of Arkadina, just as much in love with Nina as Konstantin ever was, and also just as much adored by Masha, the daughter of the estate housekeeper, who is now addicted not to snuff but to Nicorette. That the love triangle – soon to take on even more complicated configurations – has become all-female is, in West and Ryan’s hands, no cute trick but rather a change which so perfectly fits with The Seagull’s preoccupations – love and its confusions, identity and its anxieties, artistic ambition and its woes, especially in a society in which it’s sometimes hard to be heard – that it seems the cast of characters has always been thus. Besides, “five tons of love” will smother you regardless of your sexual preferences.
The Corn Exchange and The Seagull are a good match. The Seagull may not produce any answers to the question of whether new forms are possible, but it is a play propelled by its younger characters’ hunger for those new forms, not just in theatre but in life. New ways of speaking to one another; new ways of being together; new ways of collaborating, or of striking out. From its beginnings 21 years ago, these are the kinds of explorations which have driven the work of the Corn Exchange – along with a smartly comic instinct for a play’s potential resonances with the realities of contemporary Irish life: the slang, the habits, the tics. The things that bore us to tears and the things that set us roaring. Our own humming beehive, with its drones and its queen(s) and its countless stings. The stage we create for ourselves, aggressive city seagulls and all.
Previous productions of The Seagull have built the stage-on-the-stage: a platform, a curtain, a framed view down to the lake. Here, the site of Constance’s play (“the thing, the play”) is not a stage but a vague “place”, marked by nothing rather than by something; and, from Constance’s perspective, a blissful lack of problems. No audience yet to ruin it, not even Nina, adored as she may be, to perform it, just “nothing. Empty space.” It’s a “real theatre”, Constance swoons.
And then the people show up.
This is a programme note for The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, in a new translation by Michael West and Annie Ryan, at the Gaiety Theatre from Oct 5-16, as part of Dublin Theatre Festival dublintheatrefestival.com