What is it?
It's a new version of Chekhov’s comedy directed by Jamie Lloyd (his brilliant Cyrano with James McAvoy opens at the Harold Pinter on Feb 3) starring Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke as Nina, Indira Varma and Daniel Monks, which is a pretty hot trio of actors. Monks was mesmerising as a high school Richard 111 in Teenage Dick at the Donmar. The Seagull will be at the Harold Pinter from late June.
The dragon lady is playing a seagull?
Failed actor Nina does keep saying “I am a seagull,” but it’s a metaphor. She doesn’t actually think that she is one of those pesky birds who steal your ice-creams at the seaside.
But I thought this production had already been on?
You’re not mistaken. The production managed a week of previews but didn’t make it to press night prior to the theatre shutdown. But this time it should fly.
So, it’s a revival of a classic play?
It is, but even classics can have difficult beginnings. The audience hissed and booed loudly on its premiere in St Petersburg in 1896. The next morning Chekhov wrote “the play has fallen flat, and come down with a crash. There was an oppressive strained feeling of disgrace and bewilderment in the theatre. The actors played abominably stupidly. The moral of it is, one ought not to write plays.” Fortunately, he didn’t take his own advice and went on to write both Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard.
Image From Healong's 2013 production. Photo by Tristram Kenton.
Classics? Aren’t they always a bit fusty?
Not in the right hands. Lloyd is using Anya Reiss’s version—first seen at Southwark Playhouse in 2012 with Lily James as Nina, ---and it is very much a 21st century take on an old play. I called it “captivating” at the time. It’s always a play which responds well to directorial interventions and new versions by contemporary writers. There was a Headlong production a few years back where Arkadina and Trigorin had oral sex.
Oral sex! Surely Chekhov is all birch trees and samovars?
That’s a very early to mid-20th century take on Chekhov. In the UK that’s exactly how produced the plays for decades, with the characters starring into the middle distance by a withered sapling and declaring how unhappy they were. No wonder DH Lawrence dismissed Chekhov as “Willy Wetleg.”
But if they are all so unhappy, how can it be a comedy?
Because the comedy arises from the absurdities and ridiculousness of the protagonists. You can still feel deeply for Nina although she is untalented and for the unhappy, neglected Konstantin who sees the need for art and society to embrace the new even if he can’t produce that art himself. The play is also very good on parenting and the fractures that occur between generations.
Konstantin is right we do need new forms in the theatre and maybe 2022 will bring them to the West End.
Where’s the elf?
Cover image from The Seagull which runs at Harold Pinter Theatre Wed 29 Jun - Sat 10 Sep 2022.