The formidable technical skills it takes to play repertory are abundantly evident in the RSC production of “The Seagull,” currently in rep at BAM with “King Lear.” No surprise there, since nobody does rep with quite the brilliance of the RSC, and Chekhov’s heartbreaking comedy has always been a company favorite. The revelation of Trevor Nunn’s production comes, rather, from seeing the obvious delight the company takes in its own craftsmanship and watching three generations of actors tossing those skills to one another as if playing some dazzling game of catch.
Company warhorse that it may be, “The Seagull” turns on the willful whims of one beloved monster of a character — the charismatic and supremely selfish stage actress, Arkadina — and any production of the play demands a performer capable of standing up to her.
Frances Barber, mesmerizing in “King Lear” for the reptilian sheen she brings to the king’s evil daughter Goneril, attacks Arkadina with no less relish. Slim and sleek and in complete command of a well-trained vocal instrument that snaps to attention when called, Barber knows no fear when playing Arkadina’s theatrical tantrums. And her darting eyes are something to watch when she senses the wandering attention of someone in her captive family audience.
But the wonder of Barber’s performance is the desperation she reveals in Arkadina’s theatrically mannered tricks to hold onto her younger lover Trigorin (the picture of world-weariness in Gerald Kyd’s languid perf), the celebrated author who is about to leave her for a younger woman.
In part, Chekhov is writing about the terrible damage done when people mistake an artistically lived life for life itself. And only Arkadina, who has made a career of living that lie, fully understands the distinction and will do anything — any cruel, devious, humiliating thing she has to do, in Barber’s perf — to keep the secret to herself.
Barber is hardly alone, though, in inventively interpreting Chekhov’s views of provincial Russians who fancy themselves in more romantic roles. Helmer Nunn knows how to work with actors experienced at making their own contributions to a playwright’s thesis, and much of the satisfaction here comes from watching performers think for themselves.
Even before Arkadina arrives for a visit, the inhabitants and friends of her household are already full of ludicrous, if charming, airs and graces adopted against the boredom of their lives. Her rebellious son Konstantin (winningly played by the youthful and promising Richard Goulding) has declared himself a modern and challenging (as opposed to old-fashioned and boring) playwright. Having written a tedious piece about the collective soul of the universe, he stages it outdoors with his beloved Nina (Romola Garai), a local landowner’s daughter who is herself passionate about becoming an actress.
Arkadina’s brother, Sorin (Ian McKellen, alternating with William Gaunt), is a retired bureaucrat who affects an artistic look, dreams of a second career as a politician and will go to his death believing he was meant for greater things. “Country life, I must tell you, is not … really … me,” McKellen drolly intones, drawing the heartiest laugh of the night.
Indeed, everyone who passes in and out of this “bohemian” household seems to have been bitten by the acting bug, from Monica Dolan’s comically lovelorn Masha, theatrically wallowing in her depression, to Jonathan Hyde’s natty Dr. Dorn, shamelessly milking the drama of an extramarital affair.
And the tragedy of it all, as Chekhov sees it, is that no one seems to learn from anyone else’s mistakes — certainly not the younger generation.
There are some nice fireworks in the big scenes when everyone admits how miserable they really are, but the beauty of the RSC machinery really shows itself in the meticulous interplay of characters. One early scene between McKellen and Goulding says it all. The younger actor is properly agitated, stalking the stage and waving his arms as Konstantin airs his juvenile frustrations with art, with love, with life itself.
On the page, the speech sounds quite childish and rather boring. But with McKellen sitting quietly, listening with every fiber of his body and responding in nonverbal ways that make his affection for the boy quite clear, Chekhov’s deep underlying tenderness for these sad and silly people is enough to make you weep.