As part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s world tour, Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is as much a showcase for director Trevor Nunn as companion piece “King Lear” is for star Ian McKellen. Latter alternates with William Gaunt in a small role in the Russian comedy in the best tradition of rotating rep. Nunn creates the right ambience for midsummer madness and brings clarity to play’s complex relationships, but key miscasting and slack pacing eventually make this production something of a chore to get through.
Nunn offers all the denizens of Chekhov’s tragicomic heartbreak house — the lakeside country estate of tempestuous theatrical diva Arkadina (Frances Barber) and her equally high-strung retinue — numerous opportunities to voice and act upon their individual desires, all of which involve molding the clay of one’s life into something big and beautiful: a novel published, a performance acclaimed, a love requited.
Everyone is the artist of his own happiness, Chekhov believes, yet just as most art is flawed in some way, most lives fall short of their creators’ aspirations. (Personifying this truth is Arkadina’s dotty brother Sorin — a superbly precise McKellen in the perf seen — who genially admits that his biography should be titled “The Man Who Wanted To…” since all his dreams remain unfulfilled.)
None of us finds our disappointments especially funny as we’re living them, but while watching others live them onstage the experience is (or should be) as hilarious as it is poignant. And much of this “Seagull” is just that, especially in the ensemble scenes led by the ferocious Barber, who under stress readily reveals the down-at-heels chorus girl Arkadina was until she forged her Grande Dame identity.
Most productions blur the act one “new wave” symphonic drama that’s the artistic manifesto of her rebellious son Konstantin (Richard Goulding), but Nunn charts a careful build of reactions to the absurd prose chanted by aspiring actress Nina (Romola Garai), and the amusingly cheesy special effects complete with sulphurous fumes. Peerlessly funny, the sequence clearly establishes most of the conflicts that follow.
Some of the more intimate scenes crackle with similar life, as when a lovesick Masha (Monica Dolan, retaining much of the fire of her “King Lear” Regan) drunkenly announces her ultimate act of life creation: She will forget the man she loves by marrying the one she detests. Moments later, weak-willed novelist Trigorin (a dashing Gerald Kyd) tries to leave his lover Arkadina in a violent tussle-turned-wrestling match that integrates comedy and melodrama in the best Chekhovian style.
But mood and theme aside, the main dramatic engine of any “Seagull” is its ingenues, and Nunn has chosen thesps whose technique falls short of their roles’ demands. Garai never reins in her awkward gestures or removes the catch from her throat, and Goulding’s rages against Mother are marked by unvarying petulance, lacking the triumphant genius of youth who think they have the older generation figured out. The same one-note mewling characterizes his courtship of the heedless Nina. “You have no idea how unhappy I am,” he cries. How could anyone not, his depression worn on his sleeve?
Nunn’s pacing of their scenes is bewilderingly funereal. Her simple request for a drink of water requires Konstantin to walk seven or eight paces to a carafe, pour and then trudge another several paces to bring her the glass, during which time the play stops dead as Garai stands and wrings her hands. Similarly inefficient blocking peppered throughout is paralleled by speakers’ pauses one could drive a drozhky through.
Even the scene changes — despite an army of kulaks on Arkadina’s estate, all the “King Lear” actors not otherwise assigned — take forever because Nunn eats up time in awkward and underlit servant byplay that fails to register. Attention invariably wanders, as one starts to understand how a text usually numbering about 70 pages can demand well over three hours to enact.
And yet “King Lear”‘s running time is even longer, though it feels twice as swift. It’s all in the staging.