I have probably written here about Chekhov’s The Seagull more than any other play. I find it structurally difficult, especially because the last two acts tend to mirror somehow the actions of act one and two – and if the director and cast do not find the shift in tone that makes those repetitions illuminating rather than tautological, the play tends to sink to the bottom of pointlessness very fast.
I tend to be hard to directors, but this time I won’t. I’ve truly found Ian Rickson’s direction in his staging for the Royal Court Theatre (now revived on Broadway) faultless. The text (in Cristopher Hampton’s new version) sounds fluid, the actors understand exactly the shifts in mood, the gestures are beautiful, poetic and yet believable, Hildegard Bechtler’s costumes and sets are beautiful, expressive and intelligently used, Stephen Warbeck’s music is subtle and effective – the potential for perfection is such that you feel upset that some key pieces of casting leave something to be desired.
This has been sold as movie actress Kristin Scott Thomas’s experiment with classical theatre – the Playbill lists only two plays in her resumé. I would say, however, that this would hardly be the most challenging theatrical experience for someone who has successfully played the title role in Racine’s Bérénice in France… in French. The fact is that this British actress does not need the title of “movie actress” before her name in her theatrical ventures – her credentials speak for herself and the fact that she won an Olivier for this performance only proves it.
I have seen “movie actors” tackling theatre and know all the traps awaiting them – and Kristin Scott Thomas never comes close to falling in any of them. She has intelligence, presence, charisma, an excellent voice and is very much mistress of the situation on stage. However, technically accomplished as her portrayal is, something is missing.
Arkadina is a favourite role among actresses – not only because the character is an actress herself, but I would dare to say that the reason is that Chekhov has lovingly left in purpose lots of open opportunities for the performer to fill in the blanks with their own experience. The characters in this play are not finely paint, but there are rather white spaces between the brushstrokes laden with meaning. The problem in Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance is that these white spaces are just unpainted areas. If I had to use a musical term, I would say legato – there is a clear absence of legato going on here. In moment A, she is light and gay and in moment B she is furious and the lightness and the fury are expertly done, but there is no binding between both. Most of Arkadina’s sudden shifts of mood seem to come out of nowhere. If I could bet why this is happens, I would say that the missing part is energy. I have read her London performances were far superior to the New York ones – and I guess maybe her heart is already out of this production.
I cannot say the same of Carey Mulligan – it is not difficult for an actress playing the role of Nina to steal the show (it is probably the character with less “white spaces” in the plot) – but I have to say this right away – Mulligan is one of the most talented young actresses I have ever seen. Her Nina made me rethink the way I understood this character. There is a sense of pride and self-confidence thinly disguised by girlishness in this Nina that explains the reaction of all other characters towards her. When Trigorin compares her to the seagull, the underlying idea is almost as if he envied the fact that she can fly (and that is why it would be tempting to cut her wings and bring her to his level). Her final encouter with Konstantin is made more revelatory by this approach – she has lost her fortune, her dignity, her youth maybe, but not her pride. And that could explain why her presence triggers Kostya’s tragic ending – he has just shaken hands with the man who has “stolen away” both his mother and the woman he loves. As usual, perfection eludes descriptions – so I guess you would have to see Carey Mulligan to understand it.
Zoe Kazan’s Masha is too heavily underlined, but somehow she uses that to her favour and ultimately brings to the fore many a hidden possibility in Chekhov’s text. The whole concept could be more finely tuned – but is not devoid of efficiency.
When it comes to the actors, I am afraid that Peter Sarsgaard is a serious blemish to the proceedings. Trigorin is displeased by the fact that his books are considered, in spite of their success with the readers, nothing but “charming and clever”. However, Trigorin himself must be something – in lack of a better word – chic. He is an object of desire for both Arkadina and Nina because he is something like an elegant piece of property, something you can dazzle with by showing off. Sarsgaard’s poorman’s version of John Malkovich-like acting never goes beyond affected and shallow, but affectation is the keyword here. Some scenes are so artifficially pulled out that you are really sorry for the embarrassment.
Mackenzie Crook avoids the manic approach to his Konstantin and finds a touching gravitas to the role that makes sense for a character that is actually depressive. His act IV is particularly praiseworthy and the sort of ritual preparation for suicide was truly chilling. If I don’t single out any other member in the cast, it is only because they are uniformly very good.