Culture Editor Keir Holmes reviews “The Seagull”, a modern adaptation of one of Chekhov’s greatest plays. While it contains remarkable performances from Emilia Clarke and Indira Varma, the show is let down by its less than impressive staging.
After reaching new heights of success with their acclaimed version of “Cyrano de Bergerac”, the Jamie Lloyd Company set their sights on playwright Anya Reiss’ adaptation of ‘The Seagull’. In this production, we see the characters of Anton Chekhov’s classic play transported from late nineteenth-century Russia to modern Britain. Despite this drastic change in setting, Reiss retains the same sharp focus on human tragedy that keeps Chekhov’s work relevant today.
Stuck together in a dizzyingly hot country estate, tensions boil over between the friends and family of renowned actress Irina Arkadina as they discuss their failed ambitions and doomed desires for love. The play is more attached to its characters than it is to its plot or any visual spectacle, as is reflected by its bare-bones presentation. Within the chipboard set, there are no props besides cheap classroom chairs. This forces the audience’s eyes toward the performers at all times.
Drawing all attention towards the performers proves to be a wise choice, as it is the cast who give the play its strength. While the script gives some actors more of a chance to shine than others, there isn’t one member of the cast who lets the others down. Each character, no matter how small, has just enough nuance to feel believable.
Yet, even in the most talented of ensembles, certain actors capture your attention more than others. In her West End debut and second major theatrical production, “Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke gives a remarkable sensitivity to aspiring actress Nina. Amid tense discussions between dissatisfied individuals, Nina’s optimism and wide-eyed interest in others give us a sense of hope. There is real chemistry between her and the man that she falls in love with, making the dark path that he leads her down all the more tragic.
Indira Varma, who previously co-starred with Clarke in “Game of Thrones”, gives us an equally effective portrayal of Arkadina. Playing an established actress past her prime, Varma not only manages to keep Arkadina likeable as she calls her son’s sincere artistic ambitions “deluded”, but also makes the character’s own delusions of continued relevance as charmingly comic as they are sad. Long past her glory days, she insists that she could still play Juliet.
Regardless of its skilled cast, the play’s staging lets it down. In almost all of their conversations, characters are confined to the plastic seats littered across the stage. This lack of movement is arguably fitting for a show that centres on people helplessly restrained by unsatisfying lives, but it makes the play feel stiff. Even though the production is far from naturalistic, the artificial quality that this decision creates feels odd alongside a more realistic style of performance.
Fortunately, this fault does not do enough damage to the production to keep me from recommending it. The performers soar far too high to be shot down so easily.
“The Seagull” is playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 10 September. You can book tickets here.