Is this one of those experimental things?” Insensitive to the last, actress Arkadina (Juliet Stevenson) disturbs the play her writer son Konstantin (Ben Whishaw) is attempting to put on. But the question might just as well be asked by a puzzled member of the National Theater audience expecting an evening of standard Chekhov. It looks like “The Seagull,” it sounds like “The Seagull,” my God it’s, well, “The Seagull” as directed by Katie Mitchell “in a new version by Martin Crimp,” which isn’t quite the same thing.
Unequivocal star of the evening — and the production’s defining image — is Vicki Mortimer’s beautifully designed house. A giant, almost empty, echoey room of crumbling pale plaster walls and doors fills the stage, with a corridor running down one side. For two of the four scenes, a further wall of glass doors and windows is flown in front of it, vividly creating the sense of a place where privacy is in short supply. People are constantly being seen or accidentally discovered.
The opening image of a man painstakingly tuning a grand piano is a cunning piece of directorial wrong-footing: The pitch this production aims at is fever. The languor that besets — and, often, bedevils — Chekhov productions is nowhere to be seen. With emotions whipped up to the max, and servants and leading characters constantly running unexpectedly in and out of rooms and conversations, this staging could have been subtitled “Girl, Interrupted.”
The girl in “The Seagull” is young, hopeful Nina (Hattie Morahan), who longs to be an actress. She acts in a play by love-struck Konstantin, falls for the celebrated writer Trigorin (Mark Bazeley), who happens to be the lover of Konstantin’s mother, has a baby by him and loses them both. On the other hand, it could just as easily describe Arkadina, the vain mother embarrassed to admit she has a twentysomething son — torn between her lover, her career and her parental responsibility.
In fact, part of the greatness of Chekhov’s writing is how so many of the evenly matched characters could qualify as the hero or heroine. In a strong production like Mitchell’s tremendous “Three Sisters” at this address, that even-handedness yields enormous dramatic dividends. Here, however, helmer is so busy stressing the potential of traditionally overlooked characters that she badly overbalances the play.
Sandy McDade, lean as a question mark, beautifully suggests a world of struggling forbearance toppling toward frustration. Her performance makes you long for her to play the similar and more central Sonia in “Uncle Vanya,” but here she’s playing Masha, the subsidiary character of the lonely young woman helplessly in love with but overlooked by Konstantin. McDade unostentatiously presents utterly legible emotion, but Mitchell gives her so much stage space and time that the play’s complex web of relationships, causes and effects is pulled out of shape.
As a result, Konstantin’s crucial relationship to Nina fades into the background. Yet his love for her is what drives him to commit suicide at the play’s climax. Whishaw, who shot to fame as Trevor Nunn’s youthful Hamlet, repeats his highly impressive turn of febrile nervousness, but his intense self-absorption creates problems for Morahan’s Nina.
Morahan is at her best in her snatched moments of happiness with Bazeley’s Trigorin. Bazeley resists the temptation to make his character more lovable but wins approval by being one the few cast members whose every word is audible. Mitchell’s overzealous attachment to naturalistic atmosphere also leads to irritatingly “realistic” low lighting levels.
Trigorin tries to have his cake and eat it, too, by staying with Arkadina but having Nina on the side. Arkadina knows this and, in a scene typical of the production’s manner, goes for broke in order to hold on to him. Stevenson’s otherwise one-dimensional Arkadina drops her imperiousness and literally ravishes him, tearing open his shirt and trousers for up-against-the-wall sex to persuade him to stay.
The moment is undeniably powerful, but subtle it is not. It does, however, fit with Mitchell’s entire approach. She directs the subtext rather than the text, upping the ante with a foreboding soundscore to make everything more obvious. Nothing is left to the audience’s imagination but to watch how she exposes emotions and pushes them as far as they’ll go.
All of this is of a piece with Crimp’s stripped-back adaptation — repetitions, monologues and asides are out, starker passions are in — but it means banishing Chekhov’s extraordinarily varied shades of gray in favor of high-contrast black and white.
Versions, as distinct from translations, are nothing new. Over the last decade, non-Russian-speakers Peter Gill, Phyllis Nagy and Tom Stoppard have all worked from literal translations to fashion their own “versions” of the first of Chekhov’s quartet of mature masterpieces. Coming to the Royal Court this winter is another by Christopher Hampton, and Trevor Nunn will direct yet another (writer unconfirmed) for the RSC in spring 2007. None thus far has been as willful as this. Had the production team called the show “A Seagull,” and really ripped up and reinvented everything, they might have seemed less arrogant.