Making good on my new year’s resolutions: going to more Toronto theatre and writing about shows on the blog rather than on Facebook. So this is rough and quick and off the cuff and relatively unfiltered.
I really, really wanted to like this production. I’m hugely supportive of CanStage including classics in their season, I want to see much more Chekhov in Toronto, and on big(gish) stages, I admire many of the actors in the cast, and Chris Abraham is unquestionably one of our best directors. But unfortunately, to me, none of it added up to a compelling evening.
Primarily, I’m left wondering what the point of the production was: why this play? Why now? What did the director or the cast want from the play? I couldn’t say. Chekhov puts a host of themes in play in The Seagull — art and life, love and being loved, desire and ageing, parents and children, and so on. All of them matter as much now as they did in the late 1890s. But I don’t know that any of them came into sustained focus in this production.
Take the first one: art — particularly theatre — and life. This is (obviously) a profoundly metatheatrical play, from Konstantin’s lengthy disquisitions about the flaws of contemporary theatre to his play to Arkadina’s private theatrics (not to mention the Hamlet leitmotif). But what’s the point of Konstantin’s critique if it doesn’t actually have a reference point outside of the play? What’s the point of staging his play with a Nina delivering as polished a performance as one can expect, given the material? What’s the point of underplaying Arkadina’s histrionic argument with Trigorin in Act 3? What’s the point, in other words, of muting all the play’s self-referentiality to a point where it’s difficult to see that The Seagull is, in no small part, a play about theatre? I’m not saying that there is no point in doing those things — I just don’t understand what it is, and I can’t say that this production made it clear to me why it was doing what it seemed to be doing.
There are a couple of direct theatrical consequences of this strategy, though. Here’s just one: the play-within-the-play, at least tonight, didn’t read as funny at all. Arkadina’s reactions to it got laughs, but the play itself was received by this audience in stony silence. Now, that’s a perfectly acceptable reading of Chekhov’s text: it’s not necessary to assume that Konstantin’s play is as bad as it may seem to be. But playing it straight, and giving Nina an actorly competence she apparently loses the moment she embarks on her semi-professional career, means giving up on what I have in the past experienced as a fairly profound transformation: the shift that occurs between the two iterations of the “men and lions, partridges and eagles” passage. When I last saw The Seagull, at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Konstantin’s play was staged as a terrible second-rate version of a Volksbühne production, and Nina’s opening speech was hilariously inept. As a consequence, however, its return in Act 4, delivered not only in a different context but in a totally different mode and with a totally different focus, was stunning, shockingly moving, and revealed something about the power of acting — the power to transform a text of glorious absurdity into something entirely unironic, not an evocation of how “good” things were “before,” but of the existential despair that the words are too grandiose to capture on their own. There was no such effect in the production I saw tonight: the lines just came back, as an echo of that earlier time, but without much of a transformation (or much transformative power).
There’s other stuff that irked me: I realize I’m on a bit of an age-themed rampage at the moment, but I seriously don’t understand what’s gained by making Trigorin older than Arkadina. The play makes a point of noting that he’s not even 40 yet, and that he has a habit of dating older women. It’s never said explicitly, but part of Konstantin’s revulsion at his mother’s relationship with the other writer seems to be that he’s younger than her — and certainly Arkadina’s references to her age in her fight with Trigorin imply that she’s older. Of course any production can ignore all that. But not without reason — and I don’t know that I saw such a reason here. (In Chris Abraham’s defence, one might mention that Stanislavsky was 35 when he played Trigorin himself in 1898 — opposite an Arkadina played by Olga Knipper, aged 30. So there’s that.)
Other gripes, of a technical nature: if one knows anything about Chekhov’s response to Stanislavsky’s original staging, it’s that it inspired him to contemplate the famous (and never realized) stage direction for his next play: “The action takes place in a country where there are no mosquitoes or crickets or other insects that interfere with people’s conversations.” Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design has more to do with Stanislavsky than with Chekhov. It’s impressively rich in detail, and oppressively present. In Act 4, the wind seems about to blow the house down. But to what end? Do I really need to hear the wildlife and the wind the characters mention for those natural phenomena to become real?
The sound design and its heightened but committed realism go hand in hand with a lighting design that succeeds at creating a genuinely gorgeous effect of hazy summer air in Act 2, but sadly fails at lighting anyone’s face in Acts 3 and 4 — I was sitting four rows back, and could hardly make out what was happening on Christine Horne’s or Philip Riccio’s faces during Nina and Konstantin’s climactic scene in Act 4. Yanna McIntosh’s facial expression similarly disappeared in the dark golden glow.
Both of those “merely” technical issues, however, combine with the set design to what struck me as a distressingly literal realism. The initial set, spare on its raw wooden planks, with mismatched chairs arranged stage left facing a stylized stage on the right (framed by two ropes for the curtain), and dominated by two bare trunks of trees (one upstage left, the other in front of the stage in the audience stage right), was not uninteresting, but every scene change after that increased the naturalist clutter. The table piled with food in Act 3 would have made Stratford proud. And the scene change to Act 4 required not only a new bookcase, but also piles and piles of books to make sure the visual effect of Konstantin turning the dining room into his study was achieved.
What is the point of all these efforts? What is the point of pairing an unfractured naturalism in acting style and set design with the (necessary?) heightened theatricality of having a room change in front of our eyes? Why, for that matter, are only scene changes allowed to function as areas of directorial intervention and invention? (Notably, as the set was being transformed after Act 3, Nina, holding a fan, kept getting shot by Yakov to the sound of applause — a scene, I take it, from a show in which she was performing in the intervening two years, and which my own ignorance did not allow me to identify. I didn’t mind the idea at all; I just wished more efforts like this one had found their way into the four acts themselves.)
Lastly, there’s the matter of acting. This is not a poorly acted show by any measure — it would be hard to imagine how it could be, given the calibre of artists involved. There were real moments of delight for me. Bahia Watson’s drinking at the top of Act 3 was delightful. The way she and Gregory Prest played out the dysfunctional relationship between Masha and Medvedenko, especially in Act 4? Wonderfully sad and funny. Pretty much everything Gregory Prest did, really. Eric Peterson’s richly nostalgic take on Sorin’s speech about “The Man who wanted to” in Act 4. The first encounter between Horne’s Nina and Rooney’s Trigorin in Act 3. And more: there were plenty of moments when things clicked, on an acting level. But. One thing that didn’t happen for me at all was Konstantin. Philip Riccio plays him in such a restrained physical register, so relatively straight-laced, that both his rage and his despair felt — to me — more like claims about the character than like embodied actions and emotions. I didn’t feel this way about Yanna McIntosh’s Arkadina, though in her performance, too, I found a strange unwillingness to go beyond a certain limit. If Riccio never seemed to plumb the depths of Konstantin’s fear and loathing, McIntosh never really embraced Arkadina’s histrionic persona, her controlled (or not) hysteria. It seems to me that the relationship between those two characters, and their confrontations, calls for a willingness to embrace extremes of expression that neither actor was interested in exploring. That left McIntosh with a performance that struck me as too straightforward, an Arkadina too authentic in her self-presentation; and it left Riccio with a Konstantin who seemed angry and dissatisfied rather than on the edge of suicidal anguish. One of those is more problematic than the other….
All of these things combined left me feeling rather sad: I recognize the craft that went into creating this evening, in all departments; but I don’t understand what the point of all that effort was. It didn’t produce an especially clear, “neutral” reading of the play in the sense of revealing what is at stake in The Seagull in a kind of decontextualized way; nor did it seem to have any particular angle on the text — its relevance, its usefulness, its appeal, or its urgency now. I didn’t see anything on stage tonight, with the exception of colour-blind casting, that would have seemed out of place 30 years ago. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. Classics remain current because they change.
I really, really wanted to like this Seagull, but I’m afraid it left me wanting more: more theatre, more intent, more attitude, more coherence, more daring, more… something.
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