REVIEW: The Seagull | Black Swan State Theatre Company

Reviewed 13.08.14

Greta Scacchi is in town to grace the stage of the Heath Ledger Theatre as Arkadina in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, adapted by Hillary Bell and directed by Kate Cherry. Scacchi is every bit as masterful a performer on stage as one would expect, with a huge presence that dominates the scene and fills the theatre. She is truly the star of this slightly morose but captivating piece that has fascinated and inspired generations of theatre artists the world over.

Chekhov claims, as do the makers of this particular production, that The Seagull is a comedy. Indeed, Cherry has decided to emphasise this aspect of the piece, particularly in the first two acts, where the tone is generally lighthearted and playful. The play pokes fun of the art form of theatre itself, questions old methods and establishes new ones. But there’s the unmistakable undercurrent of discontent and melodrama that pervades the atmosphere of Chekhov’s works, where characters yearn for greener pastures that they never quite seem able to reach. The first act is quite delightful, with some excellent character work by Michael Loney as Sorin and Rebecca Davis as Masha. These two hold their own alongside the grande dame of the piece, and are generous with their own unique comic sensibilities in their respective roles.

The trio of Dr. Dorn (Andrew McFarlane), Polina (Sarah McNeill) and Shimarayev (Greg McNeill) also support the main storyline(s) well; Dr. Dorn as the town physician is able to travel freely between social strata, and therefore acts as a sympathetic sounding board for many of the characters. McFarlane comes across as patient, caring, and diplomatic, so we must not overlook the importance of his role in the work. The McNeills are here representing the working class, and one of the most memorable exchanges comes between Sarah McNeill and Andrew McFarlane, in which Polina asks Dr. Dorn if they can finally be together. Here we get a glimpse into another of the piece’s love triangles, and it’s tender, sweet and funny.

Unfortunately one of the main love triangles, that between Konstantin (Luke McMahon), Trigorin (Ben Mortley) and Nina (Leila George), lacks the charm and appeal of the triangle between the doctor, the estate manager and his wife. Of course, the former is meant to be complex and full of melodrama, whereas the latter is meant to provide comic relief; however, McMahon, Mortley and George never did manage to draw us into their triangular tug-of-war. McMahon and Mortley in particular gave fairly stiff performances, delivering their lines prettily and making the right physical moves, but not truly inhabiting their characters. It was evident that Ms. George is moving in the right direction as a performer, and one can see that her natural instincts as an actor are well in place, but her scene partners simply did not help to stabilise her work in this piece.

Sadly, the point at which Nina returns in the final act was so dimly lit that we could not connect properly with George in her very critical scene with McMahon. Nina does a bit of an Ophelia turn, and although her words are disturbed enough, we were not able to properly watch the actress’s thoughts as she verbalised them, and Ms. George’s physicality wasn’t strong or specific enough to make up for not being able to see her face. And while we understand that Konstantin is disturbed by Nina’s sudden appearance and abrupt departure, we don’t genuinely feel the weight of this in McMahon’s reactions afterwards. When he rips up his manuscripts, it feels insincere and cliched. This happens all too frequently in Cherry’s productions; she opts for the conventional, rather than finding an unexpected reaction which could have far more dramatic impact than giving us what we’ve already seen or could have seen coming a mile away.

The design by Fiona Bruce is gorgeous in shades of blue, referencing both the lake and the sky; her set is contemporary but lends enough of the traditional to make the period costumes feel appropriate within it. Ms. Scacchi’s costumes in particular are eye-catching and aptly reflect her range of character from luxuriously delicate to slightly vulgar and garish. The language in Ms. Bell’s adaptation is also quite contemporary, giving the dialogue a fresh, relevant feel. She has breathed a new life into the work so that it sits well with our current comic sensibilities. I’m convinced that her particular take on the script is chiefly responsible, along with Ms. Scacchi’s wonderful larger-than-life but still convincing Arkadina, for allowing this production pass for a comedy.