The aesthetic is austere, the emotional range fiercely compressed and the intent is relentlessly pure, but that’s only to be expected in Samuel Beckett’s “The Seagull.” Wait, what? Obviously, the play is actually by Chekhov but despite a handful of piercingly authentic performances, including that of an incandescent Emilia Clarke, three-dimensional writing is often flattened by the all-controlling, would-be-Beckettian voice of director Jamie Lloyd (“Betrayal“). Stripping down “Cyrano de Bergerac” released that play’s energy; but playing a similar game here, its director delivers an uneven production more willful than wonderful.
Lloyd’s presentation is initially arresting. Old-fashioned Chekhovian naturalism is banished to create a samovar-free zone. In this non-specific contemporary presentation, there are no props. The set is a chipboard box illuminated by hard white overhead lighting with the actors in status-free blue and gray clothes, sitting in a row of nondescript, matching plastic chairs.
Fresh though this initially seems, the chairs and largely seated actors most strongly evoke the practice of the legendary dance-theatre maker Pina Bausch (who died 13 years ago). Her influence may also be the reason why the actors are inexplicably barefoot in a production that mostly forbids them from standing, let alone moving dynamically through the space.
The paring down is intensified by the handling of the lines of Anya Reiss’ fleet and extremely playable version of Chekhov. His hallmark is that although he writes people whose life choices are invariably stymied by circumstance and inertia, even the smallest role is rivetingly alive. Here, those characters, and the impressive actors playing them, wind up being reduced by one-size-fits-all slow, over-deliberate delivery.
On the upside, with everyone wearing visible head mics (shades of the troupe Complicite and beyond), they can — and do — whisper lines, making them almost closer to thoughts than speech. That’s a welcome relief from the current, vogue-ish practice of over-emoting with fascinatingly subtle subtext turned into overplayed text. And Lloyd’s technique has the welcome effect of pulling the audience into the intensity of the drama and making audiences truly listen and do imaginative work.
But the considerable downside is that all this robs the evening of the actors’ energy. At its weakest, it feels like a reading. And for audiences unfamiliar with the play, the stakes are likely to remain dangerously low because all the (over-emphasized) moments come at the expense of the drama coalescing into a whole. For a production that clearly prides itself on taking everything back to its essentials, it’s worrying that the play’s events, including Konstantin’s suicide, are less than clear.
Ironically for a production built upon such a unified approach, the strongest performance is the one that pushes against its boundaries. Indira Varma is gloriously blithe and effortless as the selfish actress and mother-from-hell, Arkadina. A brilliant Coward actor, Varma is not only wickedly comic as she lures her wavering lover Trigorin back, she also powerfully suggests the desperation beneath her beautifully maintained manner via only the tiniest glimpse of her pain.
Gerald Kyd also shines as all-seeing, imperturbable Dr. Dorn, whether wearyingly suggesting Arkadina’s ailing brother simply needs to take Paracetamol or thoughtfully dispensing kindness. Quietly affecting, it’s a notably undemonstrative, still-waters-run-deep performance.
As Nina, making her West End debut, Emilia Clarke is radiantly sincere. Her eyes and ready smile grow ever larger as she flowers beneath the attention of Tom Rhys-Harries’ handsome Trigorin. And, armed with Reiss’ tremendous version of the celebrated actress-vs-seagull speech in the final scene, she winningly goes for simplicity over display. Unlike countless more experienced stage actors who have fallen into the trap of displaying Nina’s pain and her helpless, hopelessly unrequited love, Clarke simplifies: she’s dispassionate. It’s a calm, unactorly performance of moving truthfulness.
Playing Konstantin, her fatally besotted friend and the play’s emotional pivot, is the excellent and inventive Daniel Monks who follows the production’s approach near-religiously. His portrayal of a seriously depressed young man is abidingly truthful, but his performance is so interior and affectless that for the most part it feels ruinously disconnected.
Konstantin, a writer, longs for theater to abandon its stultifying practices and embrace new forms. Lloyd’s production evidently wants to do that too, but the chosen form is oddly less than new and often stifles the content.