by Lynn on May 15, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Streaming on the website until June 30, 2021.

Written by Anton Chekhov

Adapted by Simon Stephens

Directed by Daniel Brooks

Sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne

Audio producer, Gregory Sinclair

Cast: Ghazal Azarbad

Oliver Dennis

Raquel Duffy

Hailey Gillis

Stuart Hughes

Alex McCooeye

Kristen Thomson

Dan Mousseau

Gregory Prest

Paolo Santalucia

Sugith Varughese

Contemporary, but true to Chekhov spirit. The adaptation is blistering as is the production.

Background. The Seagull by Anton Chekhov is part of Soulpepper Theatre’s Around the World in 80 Plays audio series. So far they have done a play from Canada, Argentina, Italy, and now Russia.

Anton Chekhov wrote The Seagull in 1895, and it premiered in 1896 in St. Petersburg, Russia. He describes it as a comedy, which is kind of funny since it always played as a drama. The play is adapted by Simon Stephens, a wonderful British playwright, who has made the play contemporary in its language and expressions, but is still true to the spirit and structure of Chekhov. The director of the production, Daniel Brooks, describes Simon Stephens’ adaptation as “iconoclastic and yet true to Chekhov”.

From the press information: “Switching effortlessly between the ridiculous and the profound, this masterpiece of the modern era examines the burning need to create art and the destructive power of love.”

The Story. Irina is a celebrated actress who has come for a visit to her brother Peter’s estate. She arrives with her lover, the equally celebrated writer, Boris Trigorin. Living on the estate is Irina’s 25-year-old son, Konstantin, along with various hangers-on.

Konstantin wants desperately to win his mother’s affection and respect as a playwright. He  has written a play that he hopes will be a new form of theatre, not the boring stuff his mother performs.

He has written a play and rehearsed it for a performance that night in the moonlight, by the lake, with his girlfriend Nina in the starring role. Nina is nervous about performing for Irina but dazzled by the celebrity of Boris. All are assembled at the proper time for Konstantin’s play, that takes place when the moon rises over the lake. The play is impenetrable to Irina and she doesn’t hide her whispered comments about it during the performance. The result is that Konstantin loses his temper and stops the production and rages at his mother and all concerned for their rudeness. Over the course of the play Nina will have an affair with Boris; a seagull will be shot becoming one of dramatic literature’s most iconic symbol, and angst will bubble, if that’s a proper description of what angst does. 

The Production and Comment. In this particular time of lockdown with COVID I think there is a simmering feeling of isolation, rage, despair, anger, frustration and an inability to move forward. That perfectly describes what is happening to these characters in Simon Stephens’ adaptation and Daniel Brooks’ direction of The Seagull. Simon Stephens’ adaptation is very contemporary in its language with lots of contractions and the use of ‘gonna’ for example. To echo a comment from Brooks, purist will probably be upset with the adaptation. Ah, well, uhm, tough. Get over it. It’s terrific.  

I was struck at how Daniel Brooks and the cast realize the absolute pent-up anger in the play. It’s not just disappointment they are experiencing, it’s also being trapped in their own world that is closing in on them. Konstantin is stuck on that estate with no real job or purpose except to try and write. For much of the play he makes no money and his mother does not help out. He then does begin to sell his work and make money but he knows it’s not very good.

There is a celebrated speech by Boris (beautifully played by Gregory Prest, throughout) about his obsession with writing. He is drawn to it. The process of writing is never finished or done because he is going on to the next project, the need to write is still there. Simon Stephens’ version of that speech is stunning in putting us in that world of obsession. Boris loves to go fishing but does not feel able to because he has to write. The speech goes on and on in the minute details of this obsession, putting the listener deeper into that world, making us understand what the need to write has on this writer. Masterful.

In this adaptation you get the keen sense of everybody’s disappointment with their lives, the ache of unrequited love,  their sense of loss and confinement, their short tempers, just like everybody going through this pandemic, I thought.

I do think The Seagull works really well as an audio play, with one quibble.  The cast is terrific. They are full of outsized passion and emotion. As Konstantin, Paulo Santalucia is both sensitive and boiling over with pent up emotion for Nina, his mother, his sense of longing. Konstantin is perceptive about the world of his mother and others. He sees phoniness everywhere. He also knows he is a disappointment. Even his love for Nina cannot give him the joy he needs.  

Matching him in emotional variation is Hailey Gillis as Nina. She is like a caged bird living in a suffocating house and feels free when she acts in this obtuse play. She is skittish with euphoria to be in such exalted company; her emotions are heightened and alive when she acts or is with Konstantin and later Boris. We get her sense of desperation when she falls in love with Boris and then becomes an actress to follow him when he leaves the estate. The weight of the world pushes down on her later in the play, and all that is illuminated in Hailey Gillis’ performance. Hailey Gillis is heartbreaking as Nina.

Kristen Thomson plays Irina with a coquettish hauteur. She knows her worth and fights for it. She loves Konstantin for the most part, but his moods irritate her. She is as emotional as he is. When Thomson as Irina and Santalucia as Konstantin spar, as they do in several scenes, they are electrifying, giving us a vivid picture of what they look like from this audio experience.

There is the crackle of sexual tension in the scenes between Raquel Duffy as Paulina (who is married) and Stuart Hughes as Hugo (to whom Paulina is not married). We get the sense of him purring conspiratorially into her ear and she enjoying the intrigue. Their playing is so vivid.  The whole cast is terrific in illuminating the heart, humor and angst of their characters.

Daniel Brooks has directed the cast beautifully to realize those emotions.  He has also adds moments in the audio recording in which he interrupts the proceedings to give a direction to an actor to do a line again with a different emphasis on the line, and slightly changes the meaning, or to say they will not stop recording because they are behind.  I can appreciate this is to illuminate that this is an artificial presentation, interesting though it is to see how a director works. There are a few interruptions in Part One of this recording, that don’t add anything new to the production except for that line reading, and no interruptions in the second part at all. So I think the real-world interruptions are a weak conceit to show that this production is artificial. We know that, but we are still engaged with the lives of the characters.

As I said, a quibble, because I thought the whole production worked a treat.

The Seagull streams as an audio drama until June 30, 2021, at:

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