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The Seagull, auspiciously and ironically enough, begins with the performance of a play-within-a-play by Konstantin (Paolo Santalucia), a young playwright intent on creating a new, unconventional theatrical form. The performance is laughed off especially by Irina (Michelle Monteith), a famous actress and the mother of the playwright. Konstantin is humiliated.
The irony is that the 1889 opening of The Seagull was a humiliating and disastrous premiere for Chekhov to the point where he swore never to write for the theatre again. The splendid irony is that the play opened at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1898 directed by Konstantin Stanislavski and not only was it a triumph but it marked a monumental change in the history of drama.
Let’s get some of the love interests momentarily straight. The teacher Simeon (Farhang Ghajar) loves Masha. Masha loves Konstantin. Konstantin loves Nina (Hayley Gillis), an aspiring actress who is angry about her life. Nina is in love with the writer Boris Trigorin (Raoul Bhaneja) who is supposed to love Irina. And Paulina (Robyn Stevan), the wife of Leo (Randy Hughson), the estate manager is having an affair with Dr Hugo (Diego Matamoros).
The romantic triangles are not what the play is about. Like Masha hating her life, the triangles set the tone for life on the estate where these people meet during a summer vacation. They are petulant, depressed, listless, nasty and on the edge of despair. There are no outward reasons for some of the conduct, but gunshots are heard during the performance. Neither shot is on the stage because we are not interested in the individual fates of these people but on a view of all of them and I think on a view of Russian society at the end of the nineteenth century.
The fourth act of the play takes place two years later and things have gotten worse. The health of Peter Sorin (Oliver Dennis), the owner of the estate where the action takes place, has continued to deteriorate. Masha married the teacher Simeon, but she still loves Konstantin. The latter is depressed and tears all his writing to pieces. Nina has become a second-rate actress. The whole group leads a life-in-death existence, and the brilliance of the play is Chekhov’s ability to capture the atmosphere and reality of that existence.
The acting is superb. Michelle Monteith is brilliant as the self-possessed actress who may have some money, has a terrible relationship with her son and like her brother Peter’s estate where we find her, she is in the middle of nowhere. Santalucia is excellent as the visionary playwright Konstantin who cannot get his act together either on stage or in love. By the end of the play, he seems to have achieved success in the theatre, but his depression becomes fatal. Gillis plays a sympathetic Nina, a woman who wants to be an actress but fails in everything like the rest of the group. Bhaneja’s Boris Trigorin is cool and successful but lacks empathy for people. His main concern is ideas for his stories. He goes off to Moscow with Nina and dumps her. A terrific performance.
Dennis as Sorin is a retired 60-year-old who is still looking for a life. He feels that he has done nothing with his life. If there is an exception to this depressing crowd it may be Hugo, the doctor in the hands of Diego Matamoros. He seems to have a solid grip on reality.
The set by Shannon Lea Doyle is sparse. A few chairs, a table, the indication of a stage are all the objects needed. The back of the stage is covered by an opaque plastic which can represent whatever you want to imagine.
The credit for eliciting fine acting and capturing the atmosphere of Chekhov’s play goes to director Daniel Brooks. It is a tough play to do. Chekhov described it as a comedy which it clearly is not but there is room for laughter in-between. Brooks gets some of that without trying to make the production a comedy. The most laughs are garnered when Irene tries to convince Boris to leave the estate and go with her. She unbuckles Boris’s belt, but he lifts her up. She sits beside him and proceeds with manual stimulation, all tastefully done with their backs to the audience, as she speaks to him. There is a crescendo of laughter at the end of her speech when she asks him “you are coming, aren’t you?’ and he replies in a faint voice “yes,” it brings the house down.
The production uses Simon Stephens’ “new version” that he adapted in 2017 for the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre in London. It is done in modern dress with cell phones present. At the opening we hear a recording of “There is no business like show business.”
Stephens tries to de-Russify the play and Englandize it. Some of the characters’ names are anglicised: Piotr becomes Peter, Ilya Shamrayev becomes Leo, Yevgeny becomes Hugo and so on. And only first names, please.
In the opening line, Masha tells Simeon, in Stephens’ version, that she is angry all the time. In three other translations that I consulted she tells Simeon that she is wearing black because she is mourning for her life. She is depressed. Those are more apt statements than anger.
One may disagree with some details but this a stunning production of a great play.
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Simon Stephens continues until April 30, 2023 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario.

April 21, 2023
Cultural - Κριτική Καλών Τεχνών

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