Anton and then some

The Seagull (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

August 29 – September 26

“This is a story about how we tell stories,” begins Daniel Evans in his Writer and Director’s notes in the program for QTC’s “The Seagull”. And as stories go, you don’t get more robust than the dramatic works of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

Pre-show, the Bille Brown Studio is filled with the grand sounds of operatic baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, however, this is an adaptation that is clearly far from its Russian traditions. Its staging is somewhat Brechtian in nature with exposed backstage wings revealing props table, costumes for changes and actors mingling around a simple wooden stage. The centrepiece is set to become location of a showing of tortured artist Konstantin’s edgy and enigmatic work, presented with his romantic interest Nina to a small audience of family and friends gathered at his fading actress mother’s lake house. The mother-son pair is not quite estranged, but their relationship is clearly troubled by their differences; his yearn is for art whereas hers is for an audience. In short it is one hell of a family reunion than can only be complicated by the romantic and artistic conflicts between its four primary protagonists.

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On the wall of the Studio is a pre-show Chekhov quote: “Art, especially the stage, is an area where it is impossible to walk without stumbling” which is an interesting commentary for a show that never falters in the hands of its accomplished cast of Brisbane theatre stalwarts. Like Chekhov’s other full-length plays, “The Seagull” relies upon an ensemble cast of diverse characters – 10 strong in this instance, not counting Stage Manager/worker Yakov (Dan Sinclair) or Anton the seagull. And each one of them convey with equal effect the passion and empathy that are hallmarks of the playwright’s works.

As the celebrated, melodramatic Irina, Christen O’Leary is not particularly likeable in her driven demeanour and self-centredness. By her own admittance, motherhood is not a role to which she has taken, as the audience sees in her pronouncement to her son Konstantie (Nicholas Gell) that he is full of air and devoid of talent. As her lover, esteemed author Boris Trigorin, Jason Klarwein wears his brilliance quietly, literally not speaking until almost an hour into the show. In intimate scene with his newly-found much younger local girl muse Nina (Emily Burton), he is appropriately both intellectually pretentious and astounding in his observations of life. And together O’Leary and Klarwein play off each other with versatile volatility and passion.

As Konstantin’s uncle Sorin, Brian Lucas gives a similarly memorable performance when Act One sees a terminal illness give him back a zest for life, complete with absurd behaviour and insightful reflection on life’s little missed opportunities. And his receipt of advice from the smartarse seagull Anton represent some of the show’s comic highlights. But there is more here than just humour. Although intermission comes 90 minutes into the 150 minute show, it is well-placed to signal the transition from the first three acts of comedy to its melancholic conclusion, where subtle soundscapes add to its sombre mood and lengthy silences. Indeed, misery ensues in Act Four, most evidently through caretaker daughter Masha (Amy Ingram)’s effectively-grating cynicism and self-medication.

Even in its tragedy, this adaptation is a beautiful story of ordinary people and the challenges (or non-challenges) of their everyday lives. As Evans brings the story to contemporary realisation with help of modern language and a modern soundtrack, his writing reveals scenes full of witty dialogue, such as Irina’s sexual-innuendo-laden jealous confrontation of Boris’ intention to bring Nina back to the city with them. It is clear early on that the setting has been transformed from a 19th century Russian estate to modern Australia, mostly through the references of the “Wicked” musical-loving estate manager Ilya (Barbara Lowing) to Australian TV shows and stars, however, by mention of “Home and Away” this moves more into overwritten, tokenistic territory.

Metatheatre mentions abound in exploration of themes surrounding the conflict between nostalgia for the traditional theatre of Irina’s ilk and the innovation that her son embraces counter to her claims of it being cultural terrorism. From Streetcar’s Stanley, Isben’s Nora and Brecht’s Mother Courage to Hamlet and Chekhov himself, the show is rich with an intertextuality that makes its layers all the more luscious.

“The Seagull” is a play that literally begins and ends with a bang, well worth the effort for its remix of theatrical styles and modern maintenance of the darkness, death and despair of the original Russian script. The fact that QTC’s production comes six months after now look here’s Metro Arts take on the text is testament to exactly what makes it a classic to which each production can bring its own emphasis. The place of “The Seagull” as one of the most celebrated plays in the European dramatic cannon serves as reason enough for a visit, for a great story will always be timeless. To see this stripped back show is to see a masterclass in quality performance, which can only be an added bonus, for as Chekhov himself noted, “there is nothing new in art except talent.” And talent is something this show has in abundance.

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.

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“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.