The Seagull

Production: The Seagull
Venue: York Theatre Royal
Rating: ****
Running: 16 April to 1 May 2010

York Theatre Royal and The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama have embarked on what they see as an “exciting new partnership” – a learning project that combines professional actors and ‘professionals in training’ to bridge the gap between learning and working. Anton Chekhov’s tragicomic play combines numerous elements of potential nuance and difficulty for the ambitious cast – a play-within-a-play, irony, alcoholism, unrequited love, suicide – and climaxes in a challenging yet rewarding play for both audience, and presumably actors, alike.

The script follows what Chekhoc saw as a comic narrative, a description that has indeed baffled many a playgoer. Act I instantly draws us into the suffocating existence of aspiring writer Konstantin (played by training actor Pierce Reid), the son of famous actress Arkadina, who spends his life vexed over an unfulfilled ambition, trapped by a feeling of worthless talent. Added to such woe is the aching groan of unrequited love, a preponderant groan which afflicts almost all of the characters throughout the play. Konstantin is infatuated by the beautiful and animated daughter of a rich landowner, played by the exquisite actress-in-training, Jessica Bilé. Directors John Kazek and Hugh Hodgart have seamlessly managed to combine the professional and training actors, so that it is impossible to tell the difference.

The comedic elements shine through the gloomy backbone of the narrative in the form of grotesquely trivial and selfish Arkadina, who remains oblivious to her son’s deep and torturous depression throughout the play. Her complete submersion in her own obsession to return to the city, and desire to look and act constantly flawless and unaffected, is depicted with effortless timing and finesse by the wonderful Julia Watson.

It was questionable how far York Theatre Royal could utilise their main stage space with such an insular, intimate script. But the stage design makes full use of the proscenium arch setting, as the stage apron has been moved closer to the audience to create a sustained level of closeness.

The monolithic painting which provides the impressive and consuming backdrop of the stage design is complimented by the natural and domestic items of the set dressing, including outside items such as tree bark, and traditional home items such as vases and wine glasses. The haunting image of the tipped and torn painting in Act II draws the audience to a portentous climax, executed with superb abruptness and despondency by Pierce Reid and Olivia Knowles. Knowles plays perhaps the most unsympathetic yet most familiar character, the alcoholic Masha who is stuck in a loveless marriage, yearning helplessly for the preoccupied Konstantin.

Knowles’ piercing eyes and solid facial features develop a powerful and persuasive performance, which matchlessly suits the unsettled ending. Whilst the script and its themes are never likely to lighten one’s Friday evening, this collaboration’s efforts is certainly guaranteed to.

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