Desperation, despair and damn good drama

The Seagull (Now Look Here)

Metro Arts, The Warehouse

March 3 – 14

“Why do you wear so much black?” 

“I’m in mourning for my life.”

There could perhaps be no better opening line to epitomise the tone of Anton Chekhov’s acclaimed dramatic work. And, in “The Seagull”, one of his greatest plays, the mood is certainly one of despair, even when transported to a rural Australian property.

Now Look Here’s reimagining of the Russian classic certainly presents a fresh take on its famed naturalism, drawing upon its family dysfunction and flawed characters as it brings the work to life within Metro Arts’ cosy Warehouse space. Indeed, when crowded by the dozen strong ensemble, cast, the effect is quite suffocating and confronting, especially for front row audience member recipients of direct eye contact monologues. This emphasises the essence of the work, for in Chekhov, nothing is grand. Yet it would also be wonderful to see the production realised in a more mainstream venue, sans the sometimes crude lighting and backstage distractions that come as consequence of the intimate space.

seagull 2

“The Seagull” examines the unravelling of a group of family and friends’ desperate, tangled lives. Within the sorrow, however, there is a sense of humour and certain degree of absurdity. The show begins with a play within a play as the sulky, snarky young Kostya (Thomas Hutchins) presents his pretentious, self-indulgent work whose clichéd devices cause derision from his far-from-maternal ‘national treasure’ actress mother Irina (an Artist with a capital A, played by Louise Brehmer). His star is young Nina (Lizzie Ballinger) with whom he is infatuated (oddly gifting to her a dead seagull), but Nina is starstruck by Irina’s new love Boris (Matthew Filkins), a famous novelist who would prefer to spend time alone fishing rather than talking about his work. This is made into a love triangle by Masha (Ayeesha Ash), who is in love with Kostya. Indeed, if it weren’t for Kostya’s moments of madness and ultimate outcome, it could just as easily be fodder for a fabulous Noel-Coward style farce. Himself a doctor by profession, Chekhov was ‘sympathetic, but unsentimental’ in his treatment of what is, essentially, quite banal subject in the lives of ordinary people. But this is the beauty of his work, which speaks in fractured images.

“The Seagull” is a play full of drama, of those whose lives are lived (as Thoreau proclaimed in “Walden”) in quiet desperation. To bring this character driven intent to life on stage, requires tight direction and tremendous performances, and this version has both, making it a damn good drama. As an ensemble, the actors serve the source material well, exhibiting a sense of pre-occupation and selfishness, the motivation for which the text gives little explanation. In particular, Hutchins acquits himself well as Irina’s tormented son Kostya, a playwright prone to despair, presenting a sympathetic portrayal as he tries to cope with the loss of first his mother and then his love to a more successful artist. Kevin Hides also gives a memorable performance as the doctor, Dorn a figure of measured calm in the middle of all of a frenzy of frantic behaviour.

Although Chekhov’s work is masterful in its examination of the human condition, it is natural to be dubious about a modernised version of any classic. This is a worry without merit in the case of this work, which effectively updates the 120 year old text without destroying its anguished foundations. Director, Kate Wild presents audiences with a production that has much to say about dreams, disappointments and despair and even theatre itself (beyond its Shakespearean plot suggestions). As a disillusioned theatre maker Kostya observes about the need for new forms of theatre, “if we can’t find them, we’d be better to have nothing at all”. Thankfully now look here has found it and the Brisbane theatre scene is, accordingly, all the richer.