by Anton Chekov
September 21st - 28th, 2002
The Tower Theatre performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
Also presented at the Theatre in the Pines, Rockport, Mass, USA, October 10th - 13th, 2002
In-house review by Trevor Williams
Trevor Williams has been a member of the Company for more than 40 years as performer, artistic director and chairman. As a student at Cambridge he was a member of the Marlowe Society and the Footlights.
Translations of Chekhov's plays are now so well established in the canon of classical English drama that we tend to treat them as part of our own heritage and so as worthy and as accessible as Henry V or Major Barbara. However they spring from a society that was markedly different from England - la fin du siècle. We may recognise in them the core of common emotions and conflicts, but the means of expressing them is alien. The Seagull is a comedy ending with a suicide and to enter the mind that created it requires historical as well as artistic imagination.
How far should an authentic Russia of 1896 be attempted and would a modern English audience be better served by what amounts to an adaptation to modern responses? It largely comes down to the tone of the acting. How much passion? How many laughs?
And those questions raise another beyond the divide between us and Chekhov's audience and indeed shared by us with them; what was Chekhov's motive in writing as he did? From peasant stock, he started writing to fund his medical studies, producing in seven years over four hundred pieces, mainly for the press, and then he practised medicine, conscientiously and with compassion, keeping his eyes wide open to suffering and deprivation. He wrote, "I have no doubt that the study of medical sciences has had an important influence on my literary work" in which "the scientific method has always kept me on my guard."
One may venture that, in the light of the true suffering he saw in his medical work, he satirised the exaggerated strife of his prosperous characters, but with an acuteness of scientific observation that raised satire to a tragedy which might move his equally prosperous audience to compassion towards all afflicted humnity. Mockery and pity are strangely mixed by Chekhov with supreme artistry. Shaw, Ibsen or Granville-Barker he is not.
Our production by Sara Randall rightly did not moderate the play's harsh humour and passionate outbursts and was weil served by Lea Tunesi's sets and costumes. Her beautifully glistenIng abstract lake made a bold assertion of modernity without disrupting the sense of another place from UK 2002 and the interiors were true to the period.
The costumes were excellent and generally worn with convincing ease, except that Trigorin's trousers were slipping down and Dr. Dorn's hat looked rather odd. These are things which actors should look after themselves ...
The most readily accessible aspect of Chekhov's genius is his gift for drawing a character in a few lines of inconsequential dialogue and the challenge to the actor is to re-create that character in all its clarity without distortion and yet within the limits of his own voice and persona and then to adjust the portrayal to create a true relationship with the other actors, who are engaged in the same process.
A true Nina and Konstantin will vary according to the playing of the other part. It was in the struggle to achieve such true relationships between true characters, that Stanislavsky developed his method and every director has a vital contribution to make to the realisation of the text.
This assumes an equality of skill in the cast, which is hard to achieve in a small company, but within that limitation, Sara Randall suceeeded in bringing to us lively scenes of full characters engaged in convincing relationships, which, despite the familiarity of the play and the misery of its story held the attention and were invigorating to experience.
The central interest of the play is in the friendship and separation of Konstantin and Nina and they were finely played by Craig B. Carruthers and Ginita Jiminez. They laid open the charm, vulnerability and frankness of young love and its bitter ending. The coolest spectator must surely have been moved by these performances.
As a foil to these well rounded characters, Chekhov gives full vent to his satiric bent in the creation of the problematIc couple, Masha and Medvedenko. Simona Hughes and Chris Howell resisted any urge to caricature and created a true bond between them, however idiosyncratic, which threw another light on youth's struggle for fulfilment in love. His performance was admirably restrained and hers was admirably expressive. Hovering around these four unhappy people and not giving them any help are various ageing objects of Chekhov's caustic appraisal. Tom Tillery was entirely convincing as Sorin, covering his egoism with an invalid's rug of self-deprecation. Colin Dent's aggressive loquacious Shamrayev was as exasperating as intended and well delivered, though rather too much out front, in pantomime manner.
The interesting Dr. Dorn, who understands and sympathises with everyone but has retired not only from work but from responsibility, is a subtle part which was not fully realised by Alexander Gordon Wood. He maintained the character's personality but lacked the skill to transmit Chekhov's ironies. Richard Thornton as Trigorin looked and sounded the part but presented a bafflingly wholesome and cheerful, yet insignificant, character. The weakness of Trigorin's duplicity and the authority of his success were little to be seen. It is a difficult, elusive role as the character is largely drawn from descriptions of it in other actors' parts and it requires imaginative attention to the whole play to reflect this in the quite brief scenes the role is given.
Confronted by her bland lover, Jill Batty's Irina Arkadina was hardly challenged by an equal, and she took the opportunity or was given little choice but to display the coarse egotism of the part in all its vivid theatricality. She looked splendid and moved superbly and her voice crashed into son, lover and servants with a slightly too equal vigour, but if the anxiety of lost youth, on which Trigorin should play, was missing, we certainly saw how the pursuit of art mlght be the death of love.
This is a difficult play, which has been attempted time and again by some of the world's greatest actors and companies. We cannot expect to compete with them in refinement and consistency, but it is much to the credit of Sara Randall and the company that those who saw it at the Tower, many for the first time, were given an account of it which was true to its spirit, clear and vigorous in presentation and emotionally valid.