The Seagull/Prayers of Sherkin

THE SEAGULL

With:
Cast: Felicity Kendal (Arkadina), Michael Pennington (Trigorin), Dominic West (Konstantin), Victoria Hamilton (Nina), David Yelland (Dorn), Anna Carteret (Polina), Greg Hicks (Medvedenko), Janine Duvitski (Masha); Olga Lowe, Christopher Bianchi, Peter Blythe, Peter Gordon, Lorna Cobbold.

THE SEAGULL

The play in two acts by Chekhov in a new version by Tom Stoppard, literal translation by Joanna Wright. Directed by Peter Hall. PRAYERS OF SHERKIN

A play in two acts by Sebastian Barry. Directed by John Dove. Sets and costumes, Anthony Macilwaine; lighting, Howard Harrison; sound, Simon Whitehorn; music, Shaun Davey; assistant director, Angus Jackson. Opened, reviewed May 19, 1997, at the Old Vic; 1,039 seats; $ :19 ($ 31) top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Cast: Catherine Cusack (Fanny Hawke), Anne Carroll (Hannah Hawke), Ron Cook (Matt Purdy), Julian Glover (John Hawke), James Ellis (Mr. Moore), Stanley Townsend (Patrick Kirwin), Harry Towb (Stephen Pearse), Susan Engel (Sarah Purdy); Sasha Hails, Ingrid Craigie, Bohdan Poraj, Gerard O’Hare.

You have to hand it to Peter Hall and Sebastian Barry: Neither theater artist does things by halves. Just as Hall thinks beyond individual plays in favor of projects, as his inaugural Old Vic 12-play season bears out, so, too, does Barry , who came to international attention with “The Steward of Christendom,” the fifth in a series of plays about ancestors who represented spurs to the imagination rather than candidates for biography.

It’s disconcerting, then, to find both men newly represented within the ongoing Vic season with work that is frankly sub-par. While “Prayers of Sherkin” goes some way toward suggesting that Barry may be a one-play playwright, “The Seagull” is an all too blunt reminder of Hall’s largely indifferent West End output immediately prior to taking over the Old Vic — a staging as lax and soft at the core as his Vic opener, a revival of Harley Granville Barker’s “Waste,” was vibrant and alert.

“Seagull” shares much of the same cast as the excellent “Waste” ensemble, so it comes as a shock to find a company brilliantly suited to one play now lazily matched to another. It’s one thing to play icy desolation, as Michael Pennington does so well in “Waste”; it’s another to be the erotic magnet of sorts that defines Trigorin in “The Seagull.” Ghoulishly wigged, the actor makes the creepiest, least charismatic Trigorin I’ve yet encountered, and Felicity Kendal’s frantic clinging to his legs plays like a cheap rip-off of the sexually energized Vanessa Redgrave–Jonathan Pryce “Seagull” more than a decade ago.

Kendal is by no means a natural Arkadina (that ever-pert voice, for one thing , works against her), but she has first-act moments of venality and humiliation that mark anew this none-too-knowing of Chekhov’s monsters. But she fails the role’s acid test: the extraordinary scene in which she bandages the head of her suicidal son, the dramatist Konstantin (Dominic West, rather overdoing the sullen pouting), in a reciprocal give-and-take of equal parts tenderness and anger. Hall directs the moment interestingly as a tussle of warring emotion, but Kendal doesn’t have the reserves to pull off an encounter in which the late Susan Fleetwood (opposite Simon Russell Beale’s Konstantin) for the Royal Shakespeare Company remains definitive.

As Nina, the young actress and object of Konstantin’s desire who is provocatively presented here as a not terribly budding talent, Victoria Hamilton so overdoes the girl’s unformed idolatry that in her early scenes she seems less star-struck by Trigorin than mentally deficient. She’s better in her last-act, storm-tossed embrace with Konstantin two years later, when Nina suddenly arrives and, just as mysteriously, leaves, only to seal the budding writer’s doom. It helps that both she and the play’s current adapter, Tom Stoppard, wisely underplay the symbol-making of the text: “I’m a seagull, but I’m not really,” Nina says in a nice instance of self-deflation at obvious odds with Arkadina’s constant self-aggrandizement.

On a John Gunter set that makes as simply telling a use of props as the Vic’s concurrent (and superlative ) “Cloud Nine,” the best performances are in smaller roles: David Yelland’s Dorn, turning to confess that he liked Konstantin’s play-within-a-play in one of several direct addresses to the house, whereby Stoppard links this play more than usual to “Uncle Vanya”; and Anna Carteret’s Polina, her heart aching both for her daughter Masha (a nasal Janine Duvitski) and, as is the way of Chekhov, for herself.

Some genuine ache would have gone a long way toward rescuing “Prayers of Sherkin” from the shoals of torpor. Instead, Barry’s 1990 play, inspired by his pioneering great-grandmother, is a fruitily written, clunkily acted and staged setback for a writer whose lyricism can sound awfully purple if it goes unchecked. In between lines about “the heart’s tincture and candle” are comic riffs on “the tyranny of the bladder” and nuns, coupled with enough animal imagery (“the gazelles of life” is particularly dubious) to make John Dove’s production seem as if the play were set in a zoo.

In fact, it takes place in the late 19th century among a tiny fundamentalist Protestant community off the southwest coast of Ireland at a time when talk is of “a new Jerusalem” but 30-year-old Fanny Hawke (Catherine Cusack) simply wants a new life. She finds it with a Jewish-Catholic lithographer from Cork (Stanley Townsend), much to the dismay of Fanny’s father, John (Julian Glover), who recognizes that the old order is dying out: Only five people remain from the Manchester families who emigrated to Sherkin Island three generations earlier.

With Howard Harrison’s hokey lighting cheapening Anthony Macilwaine’s set, the actors don’t counter a prevailing inertia that more preview time might have put right. (Like all the so-called “new plays” in the Vic lineup, “Prayers of Sherkin” opened after one preview.) Among a good cast largely succumbing to a case of the cutes, Cusack substitutes a sweet-faced grin for “the little fire” attributed to her by the play’s resident specter, Matt Purdy (Ron Cook). Some fire might have been nice, but instead we get cliched atmospherics in a play too impressed with its own language to see that its drama is pretty lame.

The Seagull/Prayers of Sherkin

Production: LONDON A David Mirvish presentation, in association with Bill Kenwright, of a Peter Hall Co. production.

Crew: Sets, John Gunter; costumes, Liz Waller; lighting, Mark Henderson; sound, Matt McKenzie; associate director, Cordelia Monsey. Opened May 9, 1997, at the Old Vic. Reviewed May 23; 1,039 seats; $ :19 ($ 31) top. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

With: Cast: Felicity Kendal (Arkadina), Michael Pennington (Trigorin), Dominic West (Konstantin), Victoria Hamilton (Nina), David Yelland (Dorn), Anna Carteret (Polina), Greg Hicks (Medvedenko), Janine Duvitski (Masha); Olga Lowe, Christopher Bianchi, Peter Blythe, Peter Gordon, Lorna Cobbold.

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