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Lesley Sharpe and Brian Vernel as Irina and Konstantin in The Seagull

The Seagull at Lyric Hammersmith

27 October 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

The Lyric Hammersmith stages a new production of Chekhov’s classic play about the theatre. In Simon Stephen’s new script and direction by Sean Holmes, the tensions between the old and new are revealed in stark new ways.

Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is one of the stage’s most well known plays, dealing with themes that are still of the utmost importance to modern audiences; relationships, personal and professional jealously, and the place of art in the modern world. In the Lyric Hammersmith’s new production, questions of art and formal inventiveness are brought right up to the moment in its modern set and contemporary dress. The original script has also been modernised in a new version by playwright Simon Stephens; the famous first line ‘Why do you always wear black?’ has become ‘Why do you do that?’, changing the emphasis from external demarcations of boredom and malaise, to deeper existential questions about why people are the way they are.

The Seagull is a large ensemble piece, featuring a mixed cast of young and old.  Konstantin is a young and ambitious playwright, in love with Nina who dreams of being an actor. Konstantin’s mother Irina is a well-established stage actor, and does not rate her son’s attempts to revolutionise the theatre. Her partner, Boris Tregorin, is a writer who has seen some success in his life, but is rather distant and work obsessed.  The play follows the course of two years as the lives of these and the rest of the cast become entangled, set inside and in the grounds of an estate in the country.

Though highly regarded for its mixture of symbolism, its storyline and its tensions, the play was not always so well received, and has an unusual performance history, partly due to effects it had on Chekhov himself. Chekhov bought a country estate for himself and his family in 1892 and began writing the play in 1894, in a little lodge he built on the grounds.  The play was first performed in 1896, but had such a terrible first run that Chekhov almost renounced the theatre altogether.  After Stanislavski, the highly influential director, actor and theorist, put on a new production, the play became a hit, which allowed Chekhov to regain his confidence and keep writing.  


The Seagull at Hammersmith Lyric

The Lyric’s production aims to refresh this celebrated play.  This is most obvious in the setting: they have done any with a period setting, instead setting it in the contemporary moment, complete with modern clothing. The costumes communicate the age difference between Nina and Irina; Nina wears shorts and a silver leotard, or a short black skirt and orange jumper, clothing that a young woman in her late teens or early 20s would wear. Irina on the other hand wears clearly expensive clothing, elegantly structured coats with large belts, or slinky jumpsuits and shirt dresses. Irina’s tightly structured wardrobe reflects her constant need to perform, and her need to be looked at and watched.  

This production also develops and highlights the intertextual references with Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.  In Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Hamlet struggles with his jealously over his mother’s sexual relationship with another man, his uncle. In this play, Konstantin’s jealously of Boris Tregorin is more ambiguous, as the personal and the professional are intertwined: Boris’s professional achievements may be at the forefront of both the play’s narrative and Konstantin’s spoken lines, but lying under the surface is the complex relationship between Konstantin and his mother. Konstantin, rather creepily, refers to his mother as ‘Mummy’ throughout.  The two have a relationship of extremes: one moment Irina simpers to Konstantin and the next she screams at him that she can never measure up to her.


The Seagull at Hammersmith Lyric

One of the most interesting details of this production is the unusual way the scene changes have been managed; there are three major scene changes between acts, as the seasons change over time. Though these changes may have proved to be challenging for a stage manager, in this version, they provide an additional way for the themes of performance and art to again emerge. By placing a translucent screen in front of the stage, the act of changing a set becomes a kind of shadow play.  As the outlines of the backstage staff are highlighted, the audience are reminded that they are indeed watching a play.

In pitting the new and innovative against older establishment ideas, the themes of the play also seem to speak to Lyric as an institution. The theatre is a registered charity, a part of which is the Young Lyric, which aims to support young and upcoming actors and playwrights.  They have a large programme of classes for young people, and champion accessibility to the arts.  In this, the theatre promotes new ways of accessing texts. At one point in the play Konstantin says, ‘“Unless you take great care of it, theatre can be the most tedious, old-fashioned, prejudiced, elitist form there is.” By exploring the challenges of not only making art, but also who it is that can produce it, the Lyric’s new production interestingly speaks to the enduring need to promote accessibility in the arts.
 
The Seagull is at the Lyric Hammersmith until the 4th November. Tickets from £15.
 
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