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The Seagull

The Financial Times, 13th August 2003, Alastair Macaulay

Peter Stein is one of the great directors of our day, and yet he directs as if he were too great to be actually good.

In the mid 1990s, the Edinburgh Festival brought us his exquisite but protracted and over-interpreted stagings of Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ (in Italian) and ‘The Cherry Orchard’ (in German). Now it has commissioned him to stage, in English, Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’, in co-production with the Russian Drama Theatre of Riga in Latvia.

If you’ve read Chekhov’s famous complaints about Stanislavsky’s production being too slow and too often inaudible because of all the insect noises then you’ll be amused to find Stein committing the same sins all over again. And yet there can be no doubt that we’re watching a class act. I’ve never seen so much detail so eloquently shown.

It’s wholly objectionable that Fiona Shaw (Mme Arkadina) and Iain Glen (Trigorin) are given solo curtain calls at the end. The two most perfect and aurally intelligible performances come from Michael Pennington as a tender, grave Dr Dorn and Charlotte Emmerson as a vulnerable, despairing Masha.

Though Jodhi May’s account of Nina becomes precious in its Act Four mad scene, and though Stein is wrong to let her mime ‘seagull’ wings at Trigorin in previous acts, her performance, much the best theatre work she has done in Britain, is mainly riveting: she is a Nina who really is poetically beautiful when acting Konstantin’s play, and who stalks Trigorin as if hypnotised by him.

Cillian Murphy’s Konstantin, though he too loses ground in an over-despondent final act, is marvellous in its febrile swings of emotion.

Shaw’s Arkadina is the best performance this gifted, infuriating actor has given is in years, powerfully volatile, mercurial, histrionic – except that she takes her big displays of panic and rage to ludicrous extremes.

Likewise, Glen, a courteous, passive and gentle Trigorin, so toys with his big speech about writing that it loses its humour. Were it not for the exaggerations of these two, I would abandon all my other reservations about Stein’s direction of this play and call it the most revelatory ‘Seagull’ of my experience.

The Daily Telegraph, 13th August 2003, Charles Spencer

Sitting down to review Peter Stein’s production of ‘The Seagull’ so soon after Steven Pimlott’s in Chichester, I feel a bit like an A-level candidate faced with one of those dreary ‘compare and contrast’ essays.

There shouldn’t really be any competition. As the great German told Dominic Cavendish in this newspaper on Monday, in Russia, “they believe I am the most Russian, and the best, Chekhov director that has existed” and Stein’s previous productions of ‘Uncle Vanya’, ‘Three Sisters’ and ‘The Cherry Orchard’ have all been ecstatically received at the Edinburgh Festival. But I have to say I preferred Pimlott’s version, flawed though it sometimes is. Chichester presented the play in comfortably less than three hours. Stein’s lasts three-and-a-half, and seems expressly designed to confirm the clichéd view that Chekhov writes exceptionally long and dreary plays about miserable people moaning.

Working with a high calibre British and Irish cast, Stein and his company too often miss both Chekhov’s humour and his emotionally devastating sadness. Laughter, in particular, is in dismayingly short supply, and though some may have been watching with solemn reverence, I have an uneasy suspicion that many may have been bored rigid.

It doesn’t help that Stein stages the first and last acts in such sepulchral gloom that you often can’t see the actors expressions. Though he is a great man for subtext, claiming that in Chekhov up to six different meanings are possible at the same moment, it’s hard to decipher the contrast between what the characters say, and what they actually think and feel, if you can’t discern their faces through the penumbral murk.

Though he doesn’t speak Russian, and admits to speaking English not very well, Stein is himself responsible for the new translation. It’s serviceable enough, but often dull and old-fashioned, and it seems absurd that he should have taken on the task when outstanding versions by Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard already exist.

The design, like Chichester’s, is non-naturalistic. Stein has stripped the theatre back to a bare back wall, which has a great crack in it, presumably as heavy-handed symbolism of the play’s disintegrating characters. There is also a huge screen, presenting us with images of the lake, the rising moon and big skies with seagulls. The overall effect is studied and artificial.

Much of your reaction to this ‘Seagull’ will depend on your feelings about Fiona Shaw, who plays the leading role of the actress Arkadina. I have often been irritated by Shaw’s excessive mannered, showily self-flagellating performances, but these failings (regarded as gleaming virtues by many) ought to equip her ideally for the flamboyantly affected and self-obsessed Arkadina. Yet Shaw generates more exasperation than illumination. We get the usual hysteria, a great deal of screeching, and embarrassingly over-the-top moments like the scene when she rushed to hide in her trunk a the very idea of lending someone money.

Yes, I know Arkadina is often meant to be infuriating, but she also needs charm and sex appeal, qualities that this actress dismally lacks. Nor did I feel any depth of despair or desire in her relationship with Trigorin. Sheila Gish gives a far deeper, gutsier performance at Chichester.

The wonderful Jodhi May presents Nina not as the usual innocent victim but as a woman who uses her sex appeal like a shrimping net to ensnare Iain Glen’s persuasively weak-willed Trigorin. Michael Pennington once again proves himself a natural Chevovian with his wry Dr Dorn, and though Cillian Murphy is a disappointing, bland Konstantin, there is fine work from Charlotte Emmerson as a sharp, chronically depressed Masha; Paul Jesson is a touching Sorin; and Tom Georgeson, in magnificently unpleasant form as that most disobliging of stewards, Shamraev. Nevertheless, one is entitled to expect greatness from Stein, and on this occasion it proves damnably elusive.

The Times, 13th August 2003, Benedict Nightingale

British productions of Chekhov used to be atmospheric, slow, glum.

Then a reaction set in. Our directors remembered that the dramatist called some of his plays comedies and disliked the wistful approach of his first interpreter, Stanislavsky. But maybe the shift has resulted in a new imbalance. Perhaps a chortling Chekhov is a distortion, even a cliché.

Certainly Peter Stein’s revival of ‘The Seagull’, which opens the Edinburgh Festival’s theatrical sub-division, left me feeling just that. With its evocative effects – a moon rising over a lake, a dawn, the sound of gulls, dogs, plaintive music, rumblings offstage – it might seem a throwback to the era that left D.H. Lawrence dismissing Chekhov as ‘Willy Wetleg’. But I found it refreshing. Yes, you’re well aware of the brooding monotony of Russian country life. But, boy, there’s an electric charge in those clouds.

The German auteur’s first production with a British cast is less fun than the all-English affair now at Chichester, but it’s far more deeply pondered and felt. And what’s wrong with that? In ‘The Seagull’ almost everyone is in love with someone who’s in love with someone who is equally irresponsive. Most of these people are thwarted, vulnerable, insecure, and one of them actually completes the suicide that Stein, elaborating a bit, shows him botching onstage. Some comedy, eh?

They’re bored but they’re also on the edge. They quietly simmer, abruptly boil over. Fiona Shaw’s Arkadina, on the face of it a confident, attention-getting diva with a taste for vast hats, is reduced to hysterical rage by things that seem small yet bring out her terror of growing old and losing Iain Glen’s Trigorin. And the famous novelist is desperate to be freed from his treadmill – and (pointedly flinging away his trademark notebook) thinks he’s found an escape in Jodhi May’s Nina, herself a disturbing mix of an adolescent siren and Shakespeare’s wide-eyed Miranda.

Yet feel this Nina’s hungers and terrors and, at the end, her total devastation. You feel the erratic passion of her would-be lover, Cillian Murphy’s Konstantin, and you feel the dogged distress of his would-be lover, Charlotte Emmerson’s Masha. You feel disappointments that extend to Paul Jesson’s Sorin, who is about to die with a silly giggle of querulous surprise, and to Dearbhla Molloy’s Polina who is haplessly devoted to the only major character who seems content, Michael Pennington’s Dorn.

And this nonchalant, affably callous doctor is content because he’s given up caring about people. In Stein’s quietly intense, unpretentiously memorable revival there’s only one escape from misery: terminal detachment.

The Independent, 14th August 2003, Lynne Walker

When Peter Stein agreed to direct ‘The Seagull’ for the Edinburgh Festival, he admitted that it was his least favourite play. It was the comic elements that concerned him, being a tragedy man himself. But with Fiona Shaw as Arkadina – a delightfully over-the-top mix of Jean Brodie and ‘Absolutely Fabulous’s’ Edina – the comedy (like the sexual rivalry smouldering beneath the surface) is in a safe pair of hands.

Eccentricities apart, the German director has given his first English-speaking production something unique in its poetry and passion. Chekhov’s exploration of motive and character is pointed up by Stein’s emphasis on the moral purpose behind the playwright’s imitation of reality. Through Stein’s peerless technique, Chekhov’s daringly low-key climax, in which Konstantin’s suicide is whisperingly revealed, fairly blazes.

Like Chekhov’s own, Stein’s construction is so subtle as to be invisible. Few directors convey this playwright’s essential dramatic functions so economically: portraying personalities, moving the action on, unveiling themes and, most importantly, conveying to the audience the mood of the characters and the hopeless fragility of their situations.

Stein, who like Konstantin, thinks in images and creates impressions, does, unlike Konstantin, have a very definite purpose. The tedium that colours the contours of the play is charged here with an electric energy, despite long pauses and a decidedly unhurried approach. “The air is hot and still, nobody does anything but sit and philosophise about life,” declares Arkadina, and in the sultry atmosphere of the King’s Theatre the words have an amusing resonance.

Apart from the improvised stage knocked noisily up for Konstantin’s little play, there’s a marked absence of any designer’s baggage. Indeed,  Ferdinand Wögerbauer’s minimalist sets bare all before us, down to the painted backstage walls, which gives the production a curiously makeshift feel – am unremarkable setting for extraordinary events. The visual effects are strikingly beautiful, thanks to a cinematic screen on to which are projected the shimmering lake, luminous sky, a brief, fast-moving sequence of life around Sorin’s estate and, most stunning of all, the storm of the fourth act, where Konstantin’s summer theatre is seen ripped and bedraggles, its flapping canvas looking bizarrely like a spread-eagled seagull.

To a haunting soundtrack of birdsong and fragments of music, this superb cast, an ensemble of the type most associated with the mainland Europe that is in the director’s blood, brings Stein’s own translation (based, oddly, on Constance Garnett’s 1923 version) to burnished life.

Jodhi May’s ardent Nina develops with a slow-burning intensity, painfully so in her encounters with lain Glen’s understated Trigorin. His lecture to her on the ordinariness of literary stardom becomes a velvety act of seduction, while his gentle stroking of the seagull that Konstantin has killed identifies him with brilliant clarity as the man who, with “nothing better to do”, later destroys the girl.

Having the actors spend so much time with their backs to the audience, however, makes catching the words a challenge, and even an irritation in the case of Paul Jesson, who could usefully play Sorin as less of a quavery-voiced old man. Michael Pennington becomes a remarkably pivotal figure in his assured characterisation of Doctor Dorn, diverting attention from the events erupting under the smooth veneer of life. Cillian Murphy is an earnestly vulnerable Konstantin and Charlotte Emmerson a sympathetic Masha, smitten by love for Konstantin. But Fiona Shaw’s thoughtless, manipulative, and theatrical Arkadina is the most attention-grabbing, enjoyable performance in the show.

The Sunday Times, 17th August 2003, John Peter

I have seldom been so bitterly disappointed. Having once seen the great German director Peter Stein’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’, one of the most radical and yet perfect of Chekhov productions, I was expecting another revelation. But no: ‘The Seagull’ explodes in a blaze of grandiose mediocrity, all thunder and no storm, all blocking and no drama. Plodding realism struggles helplessly with overblown visual metaphors. The production is cast to the hilt, but instead of company acting you get a series of individual turns, each being watched by the other characters with melancholy indifference.

Act I looks promising at first. The stage is dark. The actors settle down to watch Konstantin’s play sitting in a semi-circle, with their backs to us. You can hardly see their faces. The acting is for the body language of silhouettes, substantial but ghost-like. This is where Fiona Shaw (Arkadina) is at her best. Acting almost entirely with her back, her movements already suggest a relentless attention-seeker. Here is one of the most talented artists of her generation at work.

This is an extraordinary opening and you wait to see what it might lead to. Already, though, you notice that some of the actors are often inaudible, especially the younger ones, and that the pace is erratic. The movement of Chekhov’s plays is seamless and fluid, but someone is always, if only briefly, the centre of attention. Here, the focus is blurred – and you realise that playing the thief in near-darkness may not be such a good idea after all.

From then on, things begin to fall apart. A huge screen dominates the stage, with cloudscapes and riverscapes and the odd seagull flying majestically into the blue, to the accompaniment of bits of mood music. The interior scenes, whose cosy claustrophobia is so vital in Chekhov, are monumental, with furniture scattered all over the vast stage: about as claustrophobic as Paddington Station. They are structured like paintings, not theatre; for the actors, they are often an obstacle race.

Shaw’s performance, too, becomes more and more flamboyantly mannered. The hands claw and flutter, the body language becomes frantic. This brilliant actress is being made – or allowed – to turn Arkadina into a shrieking ogre, her delivery punctuated by frantic intakes, like hiccups. Every moment is a little turn. All the world’s a stage. The portrait of an exhibitionist becomes an exhibitionistic performance.

You wouldn’t think, would you, that anyone could make Iain Glen look boring and unsexy, but Stein has done it: his Trigorin is only a common-or-garden poseur. Nina (Jodhi May) is a ghastly little flirt, fluttering and posturing as if getting to be like Arkadina. Masha (Charlotte Emmerson) is a nice attempt at portraying ostentatious self-pity, but the performance if humourless and soon becomes monotonous. Konstantin (Cillian Murphy) has to perform his attempted suicide as a dumb show, in case you miss all that’s said about it later – and that’s the only remarkable thing about his performance. The whole production is a desert of old-fashioned modernism – except for Michael Pennington, whose Dr Dorn is the only Chekhovian performance in sight: a portrait full of watchful intelligence, of a quietly brooding man who forgives everything because he knows that he, too, needs forgiveness.

Plays International, September/October 2003, Cordelia Oliver

And indeed, Peter Stein’s latest gift, you might say, to the Edinburgh Festival – ‘The Seagull’ in the director’s own English version (based on Constance Garnett, who else?) with a cast of English, Irish and Scottish players – fitted perfectly into the even more lavish, many tiered plush and gilding of the King’s Theatre. This is the third Chekhov production the German director has offered the Edinburgh Festival audiences, and to my mind it is the best. It is full of wonderfully deliberate over-acting for the right reasons – all but one of Chekhov’s characters, seen as the hopelessly wannabe creatures they are, have the director’s permission to ‘shine’, not least Fiona Shaw’s ginger haired, outsize hated Arkadina. Iain Glen, too, as the ‘famous novelist’ Trigorin, has a problem deeper than the clinging of women: surely his trouble is the knowledge of his creative limitations. Of them all, only the Doctor, in a quiet, lovely performance by Michael Pennington, comes across as a normal human being who knows, and lives with, his limitations. Peter Stein directed a fine cast in a production where the element of melodrama was entirely appropriate.

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