October 01, 1988


Anton Chekhov
Directed by Aubrey Mellor
State Theatre Company

The question of whether Chekhov’s drama is comic or tragic has become a hoary one. But it is nevertheless important. In not quite a hundred years critical opinion has run from one side of the boat to the other. In his influential Moscow Art Theatre productions, Stanislavsky- systematically curbed Chekhov’s absurdist, comic exuberance creating a definitive somewhat po-faced, house style.

More recently, commentators have argued that Chekhov is actually screamingly funny and wonder how anyone could not have noticed. However, that school of thought still has some difficulty dealing with the fact that, in most of the major plays, his characters have an unhilarious habit of shooting themselves or one another.

The Seagull, written in 1895, marks a turning point for Chekhov. It is the first of his mature plays and in style_and register it anticipates the master works, The Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard. Interestingly, of these three, Chekhov called the first two Dramas and the latter a Tragicomedy. The Seagull which ends with a suicide, he has called a Comedy.

Assuming this is not mere perversity, it is the job of any director to consider the balance of the play with care, This, Aubrey Mellor, directing the State Theatre Company production, has done. Working from a new translation he has prepared with collaborator Robert Dessaix, Mellor- has opted for a reading which emphasises not only the breadth and detail in the characterisation but the relentless cruelties they consciously and unwittingly inflict, especially on the young.

His script is fluently idiomatic and purged of the picnic-in-a-punt Edwardian slang of the usual English versions. He has also restored comic non-sequiturs and other bits of business which Stanislavsky cut from Act IV and which have remained solemnly unused- ever since. In using the central image of the seagull, Chekhov invited comparison with his Norweigian- rival, Ibsen, whose Wild Duck had made symbolic poultry all the rage. Mellor’s translation has dropped the article from the title emphasising the fact that Seagull is the name used by Nina in letters written in extremity to her erstwhile fiancé Konstantin after her calamitous affair with Trigorin.

Seagull is a play about stages, rites of passage. Those, it seems, not busy being born are busy dying. It is also a play about the theatre and its artistic aspirations. There is scarcely a character who isn’t writing or performing or wishes they could or had. Chekhov drew on the actual experiences, the days of our lives of the over-heated theatre crowd he knew in Moscow.

Konstantin is a young would-be playwright who is pampered and .neglected by his mother Arkadina, a semi-famous and giddy actress who is besotted with Trigorin, a celebrated writer of the day. Nina, a neophyte actress leaves Konstantin to follow Trigorin to Moscow only to be abandoned in dire circs. Others who hover about the country estate, owned by Arkadina’s brother Soren, don’t get to go as far as Moscow to suffer angst, they have it at home instead. Masha and her mother Polina both wilt with unrequited ardour, Medvyedyenko the school teacher and Dorn the doctor bicker about metaphysics and the price of writing paper and Soren, old before his time, discontentedly prepares to die on the chaise lounge.

Seagull, especially in Acts 1 and 11, is a most amusing play and Aubrey Mellor has drawn some warm performances from the ensemble. There is a pleasing sense of interplay between the actors, and the strong casting has ensured plenty of depth in the batting. In this respect Edwin Hodgeman-and – Robert Alexander, both excellent as Soren and Dorn, bring special comic edge to the preoccupation with terminal illness in the ‘play. From Chekhov, the doctor ailing with TB, there is a particular poignance in these lines.

Sarah O’Donnell as Masha, in mourning for her life, finds an interesting late 80s new wave irony to her, Daphne Grey gives Polina a touching dignity in her amorous dishevelment, John Howard is suitably saturnine, although a shade diffident for Trigorin and Lindy Davies’ Arkadina is blowsily theatrical but gives no indication, in being so vacuous, why Konstantin should ever have expected anything responsive from her.

The central roles of Konstantin and Nina are played-with apparently artless charm by Steven Vidler and Ulli Birve. Chekhov imbues these characters with youthful awkardness as well as making them voices for his own radical idealism. In performance Vidler and Birve are occasionally submerged in their own theatrics but at critical moments such as when Konstantin brings down the curtain on his unwelcome play and Nina returns to the house at the end of Act IV, there is an inescapable sense of the heartache expressed in the Turgenev quotation – “Lucky is he who on such a night as this has a roof over his head and warm corner to sit in.”

Aubrey Mellor wanted a lyrical set and that is what Robert Kemp has provided. While the decking perhaps need not have surrounded the entire proscenium, Kemp’s lakeside has a simple elegance and stillness which with the azure backdrop, the filigree etching of the forest and the restrained style and simple colour tones of the costumes, makes the design one of the considerable strengths of the production. John Comeadow’s lighting, subtle in the gloaming and creamy for picnics, is up to his usual standard. Mellor’s choice of the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata is inspired and gives the production, particularly at the close of Act 1, a cinematic fluidity we rarely see with State.

Mellor has done well with Seagull. It is a play with contemporary echoes which he astutely emphasises. It is also, as a transition work, technically uneven and there are moments when we feel that Act IV is uncomfortably extruded. But since the last Chekhov we saw in Adelaide was the B-grade Wild Honey, a lesser work and a frothier production, Mellor’s substantial staging of a courageous play is all the more welcome.

“Stages” The Adelaide Review, No. 56, October, 1988, p.26.

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