The most radical change in director Benedict Andrew’s version of “The Seagull” is that it has migrated from Russia to an Aussie holiday shack. It has also been updated to include liberal use of iPhones and discussions of modern celebrity in an attempt to examine art and culture Down Under. But while the various characters still circle the central premise of artistic creation like the eponymous birds at a lakeside picnic, only a few come up with tasty morsels.
One of the big draws of the production is the return to the stage of Judy Davis after a long absence. Here she plays Irina, a faded star capable of switching on the charm when the role requires, although she remains emotionally distant from her son Constantin, whose inability to match her creative heights has soured their bond. The arrival of his mother’s lover, famed author Trigorin, only serves to deepen his gloom.
Both Trigorin and Constantin find a muse in the winsome Nina. Constantin can never have her, and Trigorin shuns her after a brief affair. When they all reconvene by the lake years later it ends with a predictable bang.
While individual performances shine, they tend to be solo moments rather than ensemble segments, as if the modernity is interfering with the interpersonal relations.
Still, there are great moments, such as thesp David Wenham’s delivery of Trigorin’s speech on the nature of creation, in which his previously distant scribe passionately likens the urge to write to a disease.
Dylan Young’s Constantin is suitably tortured, while Davis manages to instill Irina with not only a diva’s haughty air and crafty manipulation but also with the right hint of fragility, as evidenced in her concern about being upstaged by the youthful and beautiful Nina.
This is a fear that nearly becomes art imitating life, due to the potent portrayal of the muse by Maeve Dermody. The actress charges vigorously through the first half, a teen barely in control of her gangly frame, only to emerge at the end as crumpled as her dreams of stardom. As the shadow to Nina’s brilliant light, Emily Barclay is a gothic pleasure as the vodka-and-cornflake crunching Masha.
Belvoir topper Ralph Myers provides the set, a pitch-perfect recreation of a retro retreat with faux wood panelling and cheap sliding doors. But even with the use of microphones when actors retreat behind the glass, some delivery is muffled and momentum lost.
But while this modernisation may not have soared to match the anticipation of Davis’s stage return, it still reaches its share of heights.