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Margaret Croyden

"The Seagull"

The Seagull
by Anton Chekhov
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Ian Rickson
The Walter Kerr theater
West 48th St. NYC
opened October 1, 2008
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden October 5,2008

"The Seagull" is one of my favorite Chekhov plays and I have seen many productions of it both in New York and London. This rendition, staring the movie actress Kristin Scott Thomas, is probably the poorest. Contrary to the rave review of "The New York Times" critic, I regret to say that I found the evening tedious, long winded, even boring.

If one is bored by Chekhov, something is wrong. First of all, London's Royal Court theater director Ian Rickson failed to energize the actors. They stand around, sit around, and talk without much obvious motivation although the text, as written, is full of life and vigor. To be sure, Chekhov's characters do talk, but beneath the conversations are the characters' complicated feelings. What they say is not as important as their inner life, in opposition to their talk. Chekhov's dialogue may be bizarre, amusing, illogical, even insensible but none of it can be played at face value. At the heart of the play are the contradictions of the characters, their underlying emotions, sometimes hidden, sometimes exposed, so that they say is not as important to what they really feel. This is what gives a Chekhov play its demensions.

This company of actors pontificate and illustrate rather than actually reveal the character's essential nature. Actors say the lines, often they are funny, or sardonic, or ironic, or misplaced, obscure or meandering, but what is important is what the character is really thinking, what his emotional state is. The actors in this company never differentiated between the spoken word and the character's interior being--a hard job to be sure, but that is Chekhov. And if you can't do that --and this company could not, then you have lost the main flavor of his work.

The plot is simple. Arkadina, the main character is an actress who adores no one but herself. A selfish, shallow mother of a talented son, she creates havoc wherever she goes, for as a celebrated actress, she is the center of everything and demands attention. Konstantine, her son, a sensitive young writer depressed over his own failures and hopelessly in love with Nina, a budding actress, cannot overcome his conflicts with his mother and his antagonism toward her lover, Trigorin. Trigorin is a popular but ordinary writer who finds himself in the grip of the famous actress. He is unable to escape her, and haunted by the knowledge that he is second rate, takes up with the young adoring Nina only to destroy her.

Trigorin, a brilliantly drawn character, knows he is a phony writer and a weak and puny human being, but he can't cannot stop himself from behaving badly. Perhaps the most complicated of all the characters, he knows he is second rate but is obsessed with writing anyhow. That he feels so inadequate forces him to cling to the famous Arkadina to justify his image. Naturally, this kind of man would seduce a young girl and ruin her and not even remember it. Konstantine, Arkadina's son, represents the young avant garde playwright who loathes the establishment and tries to divorce himself from it, though he is tied to his mother, the emblem of that establishment. Rather than coping with his environment and his family, he chooses not to live. Though the play is sometimes amusing, it is a tragedy--not in the sense of the Greeks, but in the sense that all the characters are failures and sufferers, scrambling for a bit of light. But none of them is able to find it. As Samuel Beckett might say, they just go on.

The minor characters also have their troubles. The doctor is a quiet man, an observer of life, lonely, but dependable. Another, is on dope all through the play, and is in love with Konstantin, but marries someone she despises. The owner of the estate (where they gather) is sick, old, and feeble, and mourning after a life he thinks he did not live. Nina, an aspiring young actress, naive about success fame and the theater, is thrilled by Trigorin's attention which leads her to an unhappy end at the hands of the man she idolizes.

The characters--bound together by family ties, circumstances similar foibles and false illusions--express Chekhov's view of the the human condition: man's failure to find satisfaction either in marriage, motherhood, art, or medicine. Fulfillment in life is difficult to achieve; it is evasive and ephemeral and leads only to frustration and bitterness. Nonetheless, here is a group of people who travel, talk, complain, play cards, eat their dinner, drink their wine, but all along are dissatisfied, frustrated and long to find something better-- an idea that remains an idea. Their inability to change their circumstances is painful but clear.

Khristine Scott Thomas, playing the actress, poses a lot, smiles a lot, laughs a lot, and frowns a lot, all in an obvious effort to illustrate the basic egocentricity of Arkadina. Unfortunately, she is telegraphing the character to us, as it were, rather than trying for subtlety, so that the portrait is a conventional one. We know she is an actress who wants to dominate every event in her life--we need not be hit on the head with it. However, Ms. Kristin Scott Thomas came to life when she begs her lover, Trigorin, not to leave her. At that moment she revealed Arkadina's basic need and hidden dependency. Other than that, none of the performances managed to capture the essence of their characters. The entire production left me uninterested and uninvolved. And that was indeed a pity.


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