Paule Constable's crepuscular lighting for the Royal Shakespeare Co.'s new production of "The Seagull" locates the great final scene of Chekhov's play in a doomy twilit limbo hovering dangerously near death.

Paule Constable’s crepuscular lighting for the Royal Shakespeare Co.’s new production of “The Seagull” locates the great final scene of Chekhov’s play in a doomy twilit limbo hovering dangerously near death. And why not, since this most potentially wrenching of plays not only ends with the sound of self-immolation — a gunshot signaling the offstage suicide of the fevered young writer Konstantin (John Light) — but, as Adrian Noble’s immensely stirring production never ceases reminding us, concerns a community of sad and unfulfilled people inhabiting their own living death.

“She was a delightful girl,” Sorin (Richard Pasco), brother to Konstantin’s alternately loving and cruel mother Arkadina (Penelope Wilton, thankfully underplaying the character’s flamboyance), says of his nephew’s adored Nina (Justine Waddell), speaking as if she were already dead. And in a way — at least in this staging — Nina is, although it’s one of the enduring paradoxes of Chekhov that his characters are never more mournful than when they are at their most animated.

The RSC seems to have a charmed history with this play. A decade or so ago Terry Hands had one of his finest achievements in the same auditorium, staging a “Seagull” that will forever be defined by the wounding mating dance between the Arkadina of the late Susan Fleetwood and Simon Russell Beale’s Konstantin, the latter a bespectacled no-hoper who ultimately tore at his manuscript as if shredding himself in two.

Noble’s current version doesn’t score on that front, and it suffers from an irritatingly sullen Light as the most pouty forger of “new forms” imaginable. (The actor might be a bit more audience-friendly if he took his hands out of his pockets.) But it’s studded with an array of brilliant supporting turns — preeminently Richard Johnson’s clear-eyed Dorn, in this viewing the nearest the play has to a resident critic — as well as an utterly ravishing, star-making one: Waddell’s startling reclamation of the incipient actress, Nina, whose eleventh-hour derangement is made that much more upsetting by the dreaminess that has come before.

There can be few harder assignments in the classical repertory than Nina, who must both live up to Konstantin’s over-the-top claims for her and has to make sense, right at the outset, as the deeply miscast actress at the center of Konstantin’s aborted play. Later, returning after two years to the estate where she first felt the stirrings of the heart in the company of the callow novelist Trigorin (a charmless Nigel Terry), Nina bears the burden of embodying the title , which is never a sympathetic task. “I am a seagull; no, that’s not it,” she cries, refusing to be relegated to the status of symbol even as she is clearly shot down, in her way, by that same Trigorin who earlier (and eerily) presaged her decline.

Waddell — a rising talent known for her British television work as Thomas Hardy’s Tess and in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Wives and Daughters” — makes every transition count, from the untried performer at the start (“I’m sure you must have talent,” is Arkadina’s drolly dismissive post-performance assessment of the young girl’s skills) through to the ruined specter who emerges as Konstantin’s soulmate, the two steeped jointly in the abrasions of life— and love.

Jerking her head back on each involuntary invocation of that seagull, Waddell’s Nina gives the impression of someone staving off madness — what an Ophelia she would be! — while at the same time resisting melodrama. And when she remarks upon “how sordid life is,” what emerges is no purveyor of histrionics but, instead, an early version of Sonya in “Uncle Vanya,” for whom this Nina could just as well be speaking when she talks of “the capacity to endure.”

It’s one of the many virtues of Peter Gill’s new and distinctly pointed version of this text (Konstantin mentions being “strung out”) that pretty much all the characters are forever revealing to us — however inadvertently — both what they have settled for and what they might have been. Niamh Linehan’s brisk, freshly played Masha yearns for kindness and affection over wealth and cleverness, only to end up poisoning her own marital bed by refusing any charity to the schoolmaster (a touching Mark Hadfield) who loves her.

Occupying a different order of despair is the aging Sorin, who once aimed to write and speak well and is now merely a bronchial state councilor embarrassed by his own long-windedness: Veteran English thesp Pasco (“Racing Demon,” etc.) is treasurable in the role.

It’s that chasm between ambition and achievement that “The Seagull” stakes out so well, heightened in Noble’s fierce view of the play by our glimpse of that other chasm, life at its most wearying and indolent, simply marking time until death. “How agitated they all are,” observes Dorn, anatomizing his environs with characteristic lucidity before adding (rhetorically), “What can I do?” The answer, for Chekhov anyway, lay in the very art that he denies his characters, with the result that their propulsive movement towards blackness fills a darkened and tear-stained stage with light.

The Seagull

Barbican Theater, London; 1,200 seats; $33 ($53) top

Production

A Royal Shakespeare Co. presentation of the play by Anton Chekhov in two acts, in a new version by Peter Gill. Directed by Adrian Noble.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Vicki Mortimer. Lighting, Paule Constable; music, Mia Soteriou; sound, Mic Pool; movement, Sue Lefton; music director, Merlin Shepherd. Opened April 25 , 2000. Reviewed April 22. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MIN.

Cast

Arkadina - Penelope Wilton
Trigorin - Nigel Terry
Nina - Justine Waddell
Sorin - Richard Pasco
Dorn - Richard Johnson
Masha - Niamh Linehan
Konstantin - John Light
Polena - Gabrielle Lloyd
Medvedenko - Mark Hadfield
Shamrayev - Barry Stanton
With: Ciaran McIntyre, Nicholas Asbury, Julie Neubert, Morgan Symes, Victoria Duarri, Roger Parrott.
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