“The Seagull” review: Emilia Clarke shines, but production does not fly
The aesthetic is strict, the emotional area violently compressed and the intention is relentlessly clean, but that is only to be expected in Samuel Beckett’s “The Seagull”. Wait, what? It’s clear that the play is in fact by Chekhov, but despite a handful of penetratingly authentic performances, including that of a glowing Emilia Clarke, three-dimensional writing is often flattened out by director Jamie Lloyd’s all-controlling, potential Beckett voice (“Treason”). Stripping down “Cyrano de Bergerac” released the play’s energy, but by playing a similar game here, the director delivers an uneven production more headstrong than fantastic.
Lloyd’s presentation is basically arresting. Old-fashioned Czechovian naturalism is banished to create a samovar-free zone. In this non-specific contemporary presentation, there are no props. The set is a chipboard box lit by hard white skylights with the actors in status-free blue and gray clothes, sitting in a row with indescribable, matching plastic chairs.
Although this initially seems fresh, the chairs and the mostly seated actors strongly evoke the practice of the legendary dance theater creator Pina Bausch (who died 13 years ago). Her influence may also be the reason why the actors are inexplicably barefoot in a production that largely forbids them to stand, let alone move dynamically through space.
The cut is intensified by the handling of the lines of Anya Reiss’ fleet and extremely playable version of Chekhov. His characteristic is that although he writes people whose life choices are always hindered by circumstances and inertia, even the smallest role is captivatingly alive. Here, these characters, and the impressive actors who play them, are reduced with slow, confident deliveries that suit everyone.
On the upside, with everyone wearing visible headphones (shades of the troupe Complicite and beyond), they can – and do – whisper lines, making them almost closer to thoughts than speech. It’s a welcome relief from the current, fashionable practice of over-excitement with fascinating subtle subtitles turned into overplayed text. And Lloyd’s technique has the welcome effect of drawing the audience into the intensity of the drama and getting the audience to really listen and do imaginative work.
But the significant downside is that all of this robs the evening of the actors’ energy. At its weakest, it feels like a reading. And for audiences unfamiliar with the play, the stakes will probably remain dangerously low because all the (overemphasized) moments are at the expense of the drama merging into a whole. For a production that is obviously proud to take everything back to the essentials, it is worrying that the play’s events, including Constantine’s suicide, are less than clear.
Ironically, for a production built on such a unified approach, the strongest performance is the one that pushes to its limits. Indira Varma is radiantly gentle and effortless as the selfish actress and mother-from-hell, Arkadina. Varma is a brilliant Coward actress, and is not only wickedly comical when she lures her shaky boyfriend Trigorin back, she also powerfully hints at desperation during her beautifully maintained demeanor via just the slightest glimpse of her pain.
Gerald Kyd also shines as the all-seeing, undisturbed Dr. Dorn, whether he exhaustedly suggests that Arkadina’s sick brother just needs to take the paracetamol or carefully hand over kindness. Quiet impact, it is a particularly unprovoked, quiet water-run-deep performance.
Like Nina, who is making her West End debut, Emilia Clarke is brilliantly sincere. Her eyes and clear smile grow larger as she blossoms under the attention of Tom Rhys-Harries’ handsome Trigorin. And armed with Reiss’ huge version of the famous actress-against-seagull speech in the final scene, she wins for simplicity rather than show. Like countless more experienced stage actors who have fallen into the trap of showing Nina’s pain and her helpless, hopelessly unhappy love, Clarke simplifies: she is passionate. It is a calm, unpretentious rendition of moving truths.
Like Constantine, her mortally inflamed friend and the play’s emotional turning point, the excellent and inventive Daniel Monks who follows the production’s approach is almost religious. His portrayal of a severely depressed young man is always truthful, but his appearance is so inner and unaffected that it mostly feels ruinously disconnected.
Constantine, a writer, longs for the theater to abandon its numbing practice and embrace new forms. Lloyd’s production obviously wants that too, but the chosen shape is strangely smaller than new and often suffocates the content.