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The Seagull

The Guardian 14th May 1997, Michael Billington

Chekhov famously described The Seagull as “a comedy with…a landscape (view of a lake), lots of talk about literature, little action and a ton of love”. And Peter Hall’s production at the Old Vic, in a new version by Tom Stoppard, is a largely successful attempt to go back to the author’s intentions. This is Chekhov played with lightness, irony and speed, and none of the woozy nostalgia we falsely dub “Chekhovian”.

Two cavils only. The pressure of the Old Vic repertoire means the production has yet to achieve the molten inevitability that characterises the best Chekhov. Hall also follows convention by placing the interval after the second act. But in his 1990 RSC production Terry Hands put the break between acts three and four, between which two years have elapsed – and it was a revelation. One suddenly realised that the characters who show any capacity for change are tragic, while those who remain locked inside their own egos are comic.

But, for the most part, Hall’s production is refreshingly free of Chekhovian cliché. For a start, Stoppard’s translation balances a stream of Hamlet quotations with endless verbal felicities: for Dorn, the worldly, well-travelled but still not-quite-satisfied doctor to say “I’ve lived a pick-and-choose sort of life” seems exactly right. Hall also sees that Chekhov’s characters mostly walk in a self-centred dream, never quite listening to what anyone else says.

You see this most clearly in Michael Pennington’s excellent Trigorin – not the usual smooth boulevardier but a man with floppy hair and a crumpled suit who is the self-loathing victim of his own literary obsessions. When Nina rhapsodises over his marvellous life, he snaps back, “I don’t see what’s so specially good about it.” Victoria Hamilton’s Nina also has exactly the right fame-hungry self-centredness. Initially comic, it becomes tragic in her final reduction to a life of touring mediocrity.

Felicity Kendal gives us a good, if unsurprising, Arkadina, and Dominic West is a properly anguished, fretful Konstantin. But the strength of the production is in the smaller roles: in David Yelland’s calm, precise Dorn, impervious to the hysterics around him; in Greg Hick’s clumsy, awkward schoolmaster, who at one point drags the wounded Konstantin by his unravelled head-bandage; and Janine Duvitski’s Masha, whose ruined life manifests itself in a waspish cruelty. The paradox of Chekhov is that he wrote ensemble plays for non-listening soloists, and in Hall’s brisk and freshly imagined production the solipsistic egoism quite properly prevails.

Sunday Telegraph 18th May 1997, John Gross

At the Old Vic, Peter Hall’s repertory company is presenting The Seagull, in a new version by Tom Stoppard. It is a decent enough rendering of the outward events of the play (apart from a few occasions when the comedy descends into mere sitcom), but it lacks a unifying inner conviction; by the end of the evening, it began to feel as though the actors were trying to drive a car without any petrol.

Two performances stand out, however, Michael Pennington overcomes the handicap of an unfortunate wig to give a notable performance as Trigorin, the writer who isn’t quite good enough: he is brilliant at conveying the man’s lack of self-respect. And David Yelland, having scored as the doctor in Peter Hall’s production of Waste, adds to his medical honours as another doctor, the worldly Dorn. It’s a fine, subtle piece of playing which makes you eager to see him in one of the major Chekhov roles.

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