October 4, 2008

"The Seagull" Soars to New Heights

Is there a serious actress in the last 100 years who hasn’t done, at some time in her career, Nina’s monologue about the theater in the fourth act of The Seagull? The play, of course, centers around the older Irina Arkadina and Kristin Scott Thomas, who won an Olivier for her portrayal of that self-involved actress in last year's much acclaimed London production, gets top billing, a big photo on the Playbill and the solo curtain call for the 14-week transfer that recently opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre. But it is Carey Mulligan, stunning as Nina, who hijacks this production.

The Seagull is a keystone of modern theater. Like his young protagonist, the fledgling playwright Konstantin,
played in the current production with a desperate, hollow-eyed intensity by Mackenzie Crook, Anton Chekhov wanted to move beyond the realist melodramas that dominated the stage in his day and to push further into the territory pioneer by Ibsen and Strindberg. But the 1896 premiere of The Seagull famously flopped. The audience booed all through the performance, the actress playing Nina became so unnerved that she lost her voice during the show and Chekhov himself, fled from the audience, hid out backstage and vowed never to write another play. A production at the Moscow Art Theatre two years later, directed by the great Constantin Stanislavski, who also took on the role of Trigorin, the more accomplished writer in the play, was a great success, launching Chekhov and theater as we know it.

I’ve seen several versions of The Seagull over the years, including the celebrated Public Theatre production in 2001 that starred Meryl Streep as Arkadina, Kevin Kline as Trigorin, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin and Natalie Portman as Nina. I also saw Regina Taylor’s poorly received all-black 2004 adaptation of the story, Drowning Crow, with Alfre Woodard in the Arkadina role. And just six months ago, I saw the Classic Stage Company’s production with Dianne Wiest as Arkadina and Alan Cumming as Trigorin. I’ve respected the ingenuity of some productions, admired the aspirations of others but I’ve never really been moved. Until now.

Like all four of Chekhov’s great country estate plays, The Seagull is simultaneously comic and tragic. Most productions struggle about which quality should be given more weight. This one gets the balance right. Christopher Hampton can claim part of the credit. His new translation of the play is colloquial without sounding trivial. You get the feeling that if Chekhov were writing in English today, these are the exact words he would have chosen. Ian Rickson’s direction is equally lucid and he clearly knows how to cast a play.

Chekhov gives all of the characters in The Seagull a chance to spread their wings and the actors in this production, even those in the smaller supporting roles, soar. Peter Wright brings a wistful poignancy to Sorin, Arkadina’s older brother who regrets the choices he’s made in his life. Art Malik is wry and amusing as Dorn, the doctor who is close to the family.

In fact, the only one who seemed earthbound to me was Peter Sarsgaard as Trigorin, the writer who is the young lover in Arkadina’s life and angles to be the older one in Nina’s. I get that Trigorin is supposed to be on to the fact that he’s something of a poseur and I’ve loved Sarsgaard in indie films like “Kinsey” and “Shattered Glass” but his Trigorin is too laid back and lacks the sex appeal that would make it clear why either woman might want him. The Nigerian-British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who recently won the Olivier for his portrayal of Othello, played Trigorin in London and I’ve read that he brought an appealing insouciance—and sexiness—to the role that I wished we Yanks had been able to see.

Still, I’m glad I got to see Scott Thomas and Mulligan. Scott Thomas, still
most famous for her role in the 1996 movie “The English Patient”, gets all of Arkadina’s haughtiness but she also gets the character’s awareness of what that arrogance has cost. She deserves the praise she’s getting. But Mulligan, just 22, and largely unknown on this side of the ocean, gives an even more heartbreaking performance. Nina will never be the great actress that Arkadina is and yet Mulligan in that final speech makes it clear that the theater is also in Nina’s blood too and that she, too, is willing to pay any price for the privilege to be even a small part of it. And what theater lover wouldn’t be moved by that?

1 comment:

Wendy Caster said...

I agree--Nina was amazing!