I’ve long suspected that a significant proportion of actors have a secret masochistic streak in them. How else can one explain the manic desire to partake in an industry which, statistically speaking, presents so few real opportunities for success and at the same time offers its participants so many flavours of failure?
After seeing The Library Theatre present The Seagull last night I’m left with the distinct impression that it’s a suspicion that Anton Chekhov shared. Whether Anya Reiss shares it I don’t know, but I do know that her version of this 1895 masterpiece is a fine piece of work.
Much is rightly made of Chekhov’s mastery of subtext, none of which is lost in Reiss’ supple adaptation, but what is gained really is rather special. In the original, Chekhov dramatises the romantic and artistic conflicts that characterise the lives of his subjects, which is all retained here and to good effect. His general critique of the staid state of the arts in late 19th century Russia, and in particular of the theatre, will inevitably have less of an impact on a modern audience. Yet the painful, almost excoriating lines which the cast have to deliver on the realities of what it is to be an actor or a writer are as funny and as incisive as ever. But what I feel Reiss has added here is a subtle reorientation of emphasis.
The focus on artistic conflicts feels as if it has been quietly supplanted by generational ones. Konstantin, played brilliantly by Ben Allen, is no longer the foppish son of gently impoverished Russian gentry, but is rather a 20-something member of Generation Y, moping about the stage like some frustrated middle class Morrissey. And to what does Konstantin attribute his complete failure to launch? Why it’s the baleful influence of his gloriously vampish mother of course, who’s the very epitome of the baby bomber who just refuses to grow up, played here deliciously by Susie Trayling.
The generational theme is adroitly added to by Sophie Robinson in her role as the chronically naive Nina. The strength of Robinson’s performance only becomes apparent after a rather shocking transformation, which personally left me in no doubt that she really is the seagull. Elsewhere the ensemble cast were each given their opportunity to shine and shine they did, with Victoria Lloyd’s beautifully brittle portrayal of Masha being especially memorable.
But for me the standout performance was given by Graeme Hawley in his role as the writer Trigorin, a man burdened by the fact that not only does he recognise his own fundamental weaknesses, but is also cursed with the ability to articulate them. Hawley’s understated and hesitant delivery was compelling and wholly credible, subtly drawing the audience into what it was to be Trigorin, and what it is to be a writer.
This funny yet gently savage production is the Library Theatre’s last before it joins with Cornerhouse to become HOME, and brings to an end more than 60 splendid years at the heart of Manchester’s cultural life. It also marks the departure of Chris Honer as artistic director. He can be sure that in The Seagull both he and the company are going out on a high note.
Main image: Jonathan Keenan
What: The Seagull
Where: Library Theatre at The Lowry
When: until March 5, 2014
More info: http://www.librarytheatre.com/event/the-seagull, http://www.thelowry.com/event/the-seagull