“an enjoyable watch, however, there was something left to be had from Gavin McAlinden’s direction”
Chekhov has been a source of endless inspiration for actors and directors over the hundred-plus years since the premiere of his first play, ‘The Seagull’. In the last week a new film adaptation premiered at the Tribeca film festival starring Saoirse Ronan, Annette Bening and Elisabeth Moss, giving this 19th century classic a Hollywood makeover. And why not? By focusing on actors, authors, playwrights and the theatre making itself, who’s to say whether this play will ever stop being interpreted?
Although an ensemble piece, the play charts the relations of Irina Arkadina (Leena Makoff), her lover the celebrated author Trigorin (Jared Denner), a nineteen year old neighbour Nina (Nathalie Prange) and Irina’s son Konstantin (Max Easton), who is helpless at gaining attention from either of the women he craves.
Chekhov’s plays were a change from the melodrama being produced at the time. Most of the action is not seen, either taking place offstage or between scenes – it is the way the characters react which is meaningful as opposed to the action itself. However, in this version, the performances felt slightly disjointed, as though the individual contributors were not connected in their interpretation.
Prange as Nina gave an enticing performance as a dewy-eyed, love-struck youth mesmerised by Trigorin whilst Makoff’s larger than life portrayal of the aging actress Arkadina was marvellously audacious. However, there seemed to be a slight hesitation from some of the other actors in their commitment to character.
For a play often described as a tragicomedy, the laughs were underserved, coming almost exclusively from two characters. Yasir Senna as Sorin, Konstantin’s uncle and the host of the summer gatherings, was refreshing with a jovial and mischievous manner providing light relief. Alan Kenny as the school teacher Shamrayev drew the most laughs from his pitiful, pining goodbyes which were never returned by the rest of the house guests. Moments delivered by other characters that should have stirred a laugh were either heavy handed or glossed over too quickly.
As a play that celebrates the work of the theatre and artists, the set was rather lacklustre; with only a few coloured cloths hanging from the rafters at the back of the stage. The props and costume were much more convincing – my eye continuously being drawn back to the dead body of the seagull during its appearance on stage.
The production was an enjoyable watch, however, there was something left to be had from Gavin McAlinden’s direction to bring the piece into full harmony.
“in desperate need of greater cohesion and direction, but is supported by some stand out performances and lovely comic moments.”
In the palace of Theseus, Lysander and Demetrius fight for the hand of fair Hermia. Unfortunately Hermia loves Lysander, Hermia’s father wants her to marry Demetrius and Helena, Demetrius’ spurned lover, is still pining for him. Hermia and Lysander run away to be married, followed by a desperate Helena and a determined Demetrius. However, they are all soon lost in a wood which is, unbeknownst to them, filled with mischievous fairies and magical flowers. This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies reimagined in a music festival, certainly a setting for a contemporary audience.
There are some fantastic performances. Michael Claff as Oberon is the stand out performance of the night. The text feels natural in his mouth and he elevates the play every time he sets foot on stage. Robert McLanachan is charmingly convincing as Peter Quince. Thomas Witcomb as Bottom brings an infectious pace and energy to the stage and is particularly strong when playing Pyramus. Lisa Lynn as Helena is bold, funny and unapologetic, instantly likeable. Dorian Hasani brings a lovely playful quality to the role of Lysander, reminding us that this is, after all, a comedy. There are also some lovely moments where the whole cast comes together onstage.
However, in general, the actors need to remember to respond to each other. Whilst Theseus’ lines are strongly delivered, he does not respond to or acknowledge the sexualised Hippolyta’s gestures. Puck is eloquent but unexciting, and there is nothing unique about his performance. Titiana improves over the course of the play, but fails to establish her regality and gravitas on her entrance. Like her counterpart Hippolyta, she is a heavily sexualised character, but this makes her seem weak if she is continually moving around the stage, circling and following Oberon like the spaniel Helena begs Demetrius to let her be. There is power in stillness, something the success of Oberon’s performance is clear evidence of. It is particularly vital that Titania achieves this sense of royalty and power early on, in order for her debasement (falling for a man with a donkey’s head) to be truly effective.
Whilst the music festival theme works to some extent, it would have been considerably more effective if it had only been used in the forest, and had been approached with a higher level of commitment. In some scenes it was cleverly referenced and well captured, whilst in other scenes I forgot about it all together. I think the play would be helped by clear differentiation between Theseus’ court in Athens and this magical, fairy-filled forest which is only remembered as a dream. The theme also needs to be investigated more specifically, both aesthetically and in terms of the range of music used by the production which jumped from genre to genre, and made the piece feel thematically incohesive.
As a whole, the piece lacks cohesion and direction. People are often blocking one another, and there seemed to be a tendency to push the action to the edges of the stage, sending the actors’ faces half into darkness at points. Lines were occasionally lost under the music, and many of the comedy moments were sexualised, sometimes effectively, sometimes unnecessarily. It is important to remember that the play is already funny. In trying to find new comedy within the music festival theme, much of the innate comedy of Shakespeare’s writing is lost.
The play ends on a high, with the mechanicals’ play within a play. Snout (Andre Pinto) as the wall is particularly funny, and the slapstick visual comedy is well-timed and a comic highlight of the piece. The actors work well together and it is a fantastic way to finish the play.
Credit must be given to the play’s commitment to making language which is often perceived as impenetrable, seem accessible and relevant, and it is refreshing to see such a large cast comprised of so many different nationalities (twelve to be precise). This is a production that is in desperate need of greater cohesion and direction, but is supported by some stand out performances and lovely comic moments.