Home > 19th Century, Chekov Anton, Classics, Russian Literature, Theatre > The Seagull was staged like a clumsy albatross

The Seagull was staged like a clumsy albatross

The Seagull by Anton Chekov 1895. French title: La Mouette.

Theatre_CélestinsA couple of weeks ago, I watched The Seagull at the theatre and was disappointed. Usually, I forget quickly what I didn’t like but here it’s been on my mind since that day. I thought I’d try to write about it to find out why it didn’t fade away.

The Seagull is a play Chekhov wrote in 1895 and it was first staged in 1896. It is set in the country, in a dacha. The owner is Sorine and his sister Irina is arriving soon with her current lover Boris. Her son Treplieff is an aspiring playwright. He’s put on his play for the first time; the lead actress is Nina, the daughter of a local landowner. Treplieff and Nina are in love; she’s an aspiring actress. Treplieff is anxious to show his play to his mother and Boris for Irina is a successful theatre actress and Boris a famous novelist. The play is bombastic, Irina can’t hide her irritation and her amusement; Treplieff is devastated. Meanwhile Boris is attracted to Nina and she’s bewitched by the attention she gets from such a great man. The two first acts end with Irina and Boris going back to the city and Nina following them to be an actress and Boris’s mistress. Treplieff stays behind, devastated.

The two last acts happen two years later when the same group of people meets again at Sorin’s. What happened in their lives during these two years slowly unravels and leads to an inevitable drama.

Several threads are intertwined in the play. One is the difficult relationship between Treplieff and his mother. He’s the son of a star and he feels he will never compare to her and lacks tremendously of self-confidence. Her careless way of treating him doesn’t help strengthening his ego. The exchanges between mother and son are painful; the love they feel for each other never manages to cover the pain Irina inflicts on Treplieff. Chekhov seems to say: “Hey, she’s an actress. By definition, she’s selfish, self-centered and needs all the attention drawn to her. She can’t bear that Boris looks at someone else. How can he set his mind on someone else when he has the star? She can’t wish the best to her son, encourage him to write, consider he could be talented. He could outshine her, be a brighter star than her. How awful.”

A second thread is unrequited love. Treplieff still loves Nina when he sees her again two years after she left him for Boris. Several second characters love the wrong person and are terribly miserable. It reminded me of classic plays by Shakespeare or Corneille or Racine. These people don’t have a crush on the wrong person; they pine for them forever and settle for dull marriages. They accept their fate and the one who doesn’t ends up badly. Chekhov seems to say “Poor of them. Loving someone who doesn’t love you back is a curse. How do you eradicate feelings? How do you live your life knowing you’ll never be with the partner your heart chose?”

A third one is thoughts about theatre, its need to be reinvented. It’s also about writing as Treplieff first finds Boris’s prose quite simple, not elaborated enough. He thinks his fame is overrated. Two years after, he reconsiders his judgement. Chekhov seems to say “It requires a lot of gift to ally simplicity and style. Behind the apparent easy flow of words is either a remarkable gift and/or a lot of work.” Something I totally agree with as I particularly like uncomplicated sentences with common language but with powerful images. Boris, as a writer, is constantly taking notes. He’s like a Japanese tourist with a camera: they seem to live their journey through the lens of their camera instead of enjoying it and making mental pictures and three dimensional memories. Boris lives his life through a notebook; he notes down moments and feelings he captures for future use in his writing. As a writer, he’s like an observer and he’s totally dominated by Irina and smitten with Nina. He’s a gifted writer but he writes better than he lives his life.

The text manages to knit these threads together, to lead the spectator through a story and spread ideas. So the disappointment didn’t come from the text but entirely from the production. Part of the cast was in cause. Nicole Garcia played Irina and Magne-Håvard Brekke was Boris. She talks in a clipped Parisian way and he’s got Norwegian accent. He’s got a haircut à la Bernard-Henri Lévy and she acted like the actress Arielle Dombasle, who’s Lévy’s partner. They sounded wrong, all along. It didn’t help that the strong Norwegian accent reminded me of Dave, an old singer of Dutch origin; I was there with my sister and a friend, they had the same thought. Wrong cast for two important roles.

And then the production. It was staged with heavy décors. They glided on rails and consisted in full decorated rooms. They weren’t useful to the acting; they caught the spectator’s attention for nothing and were detrimental to the play. The first act was in a garden where the stage for Treplieff’s play had been installed. Did we need full rooms of the house in the background? They were used in the two last acts of the play and I found myself watching stage helps moving the décors during a scene instead of concentrating on the text. I found it annoying. In my opinion, this play deserved a light décor suggesting the garden, the rooms and letting the full power of Chekov’s words sink in the spectator’s mind. I would have preferred a production like the one Declan Donnellan did for Macbeth, light and classy. It left me frustrated and that’s probably why it lingered on my mind like a missed opportunity.

Too bad for Chekov.

  1. March 8, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Interesting Emma, I saw this a few years ago and it was an excellent production. The lead actress was Norwegian and wonderful. The set was minimalist so you really concentrated on the acting without any gilding.

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    • March 8, 2013 at 5:45 pm

      I knew a minimalist set was a better approach to this text.

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  2. March 9, 2013 at 9:52 am

    That really sounds like a missed opportunity. Too bad. I’m not so fod of minimalist stages but it depends on the play, of course. I used to go more regularly but in Basel it was too minimalist. I remember Leonce and Lena on a stage covered in sand and a single piano. That was it. Both didn’t even make much sense.

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    • March 9, 2013 at 6:25 pm

      It all depends of the kind of play. I haven’t read or seen Leonce and Lena but it sounds like On ne badine pas avec l’amour. I can’t imagine this one in a truly minimalist set.
      Here, I think it’s like producing Huis-clos with a devil, flames and all kinds of clichés about Hell.

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      • March 10, 2013 at 4:03 pm

        That’s true. Huis-clos is one that needs a minimalist setting. It certainly depends but these are alos trends and stage directors will apply them to every play even if it doesn’t fit.

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  3. March 9, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    I love this play. It is a pity that the production marred it so badly. I always wonder what the affect of poor production are upon a person who was unfamiliar with the work. They might then go though life with an unfair unfavorable opinion of the play.

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    • March 9, 2013 at 6:33 pm

      I try to read the plays before watching them but this time I couldn’t.

      The production was off, really but we heard the text anyway. So no, it didn’t ruin Chekhov’s play, probably because the production didn’t make the play boring, which already something.

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  4. March 10, 2013 at 12:11 am

    I meant to tell you that The Seagull was booed off the stage when it was first performed.

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    • March 10, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      Well, I guess it might have slightly irritated the high society of the time.

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  5. March 10, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Interesting. Chekov is probably the playwright I love best, though despite that I’ve not seen a production of this.

    I did see recently a production of Uncle Vanya in London, which again had quite elaborate sets with fully realised interiors and exteriors. They were fine, but didn’t add much (you really just need a table and a samovar, and I’m aware that some even challenge the samovar though it is referenced directly in the text). Also, the scene changes were interminable, leading to a loss of pace and flow.

    Great cast, stunning play, but the set design ended up diminishing what should have been a top class evening into one that was very good but at times flawed. It shows how important an area of theatre, one that often doesn’t get as much attention as perhaps it should, can be.

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    • March 10, 2013 at 2:42 pm

      Seems like we’ve seen the same kind of performance. It is disturbing to watch the changes of set, it breaks the flow of the text.

      I’ve seen Uncle Vania once with Philippe Torreton in the role of Uncle Vania. The production was excellent, the set was only a garden.

      PS: commenting on a Sunday, are you in the office again?

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  6. March 10, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    I wasn’t when I wrote that comment, but sadly I am now. The next couple of months are likely to be a bit heavy on the work front.

    In the production I saw we couldn’t see the actual set changes – they lowered the curtain for them. That didn’t help though as it just meant we spent ages watching a closed curtain.

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    • March 10, 2013 at 5:13 pm

      I don’t know what’s worse: staring at a closed curtain or be distracted by set changes when the actors continue acting.

      I’m working too, but from home: we’re in the same boat again. 🙂

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  7. TBM
    March 12, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Some productions benefit from having elaborate stages and then you have productions like this one. I get distracted easily and would have been more fascinated by watching how they were putting it all together.

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    • March 13, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Elaborate stages are good as long as they serve the text, otherwise they may be a nuisance, especially when they need heavy changes between scenes.

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