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The Seagull, Southwark Playhouse

Anton Chekhov in a new version by Anya Reiss
Directed by Russell Bolam

Pros: A dazzling cast of talented, dynamic actors with some excellent scriptwriting from a future legend (you heard it here first!). Also, the ice-cream served at the interval is worth the ticket price alone.

Cons: I struggled with the first few scenes. This had more to do with the actors slowly getting into their roles than any issue with the script. Not a big deal, however, as the acting gets very good very fast.

Our Verdict: Chekhov fans need not look away in horror. This modern adaptation loses none of the beauty or flavour of the famous Russian classic.

Courtesy of Alastair Muir for The Telegraph

The Seagull, first penned by Anton Chekhov in 1895, is now one of the most celebrated works in Russian literature. It premiered in St. Petersburg a year after publication where the play was violently booed off stage at the Alexandrinsky Theatre. During the second half of the show, a traumatised Chekhov hid backstage waiting for the storm to pass. Like a lot of great artists, Chekhov tended to believe his harshest critics the most and his subsequent success with the play never quite made up for this initial disappointment.

Playwright Anya Reiss has enjoyed an impressive theatrical career so far. Her first play Spur of the Moment premiered at the Royal Court and won the TMA award for Best New Play in 2010. Reiss has also won the Evening Standard and the Critics Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright. At the age of 21, her writing is steeped in an eerie maturity to the point where it feels like she must have lived through another lifetime to gain this level of insight. Her characters are profound, complex, funny and familiar, her observations astute, truthful and occasionally devastating.

Director Russell Bolam gathers a stellar cast of performers to the stage, each fitting perfectly into their modern roles without losing the essence of Chekhov’s original characters. It can be difficult to empathise with Chekhov’s version of Arkadina, who is a youth-obsessed actress and the emotionally-absent mother of struggling playwright Konstantin. Although Sasha Waddell plays the character as suitably vacuous, there is also great tragedy and depth in her portrayal. Emily Dobbs brings regular comic relief with hints of sadness and frustration to a gloriously rebellious, gothic-clad Masha. Matthew Kelly is predictably brilliant as the funny and charming Doctor Dorn. Since winning an Olivier award in 2003, Kelly has brought consistent excellence to his theatrical roles and this performance is no exception. Malcolm Tierney is also charming and hilarious as Sorin, Arkadina’s beloved older sibling.

Nina is played to perfection by promising young actress Lily James. Her youthful enthusiasm is infectious which makes her eventual decline all the more disturbing. She is one of the only truly innocent characters in the piece and her naive ambitions for the stage make an interesting contrast to the self-absorbed Arkadina. She falls in love with playwright Trigorin (expertly played by Anthony Howell) who is in a relationship with the older actress. Trigorin is a talented if slippery character who is more interested in his art than the people in his life. It is through his relationship with Nina that the real heart of the story rests. His eventual treatment of Nina is mirrored in the senseless destruction of an innocent seagull at the beginning of the play.

It may seem like a minor detail but scene changes can often add or detract quite a lot from the overall enjoyment of a show. I’ve seen shows which featured endless prop fumblings in the dark to the point where it became awkward and tedious for the audience. This production featured quite literally the most rapid, seamless scene changes I have eaver witnessed. This was helped along by a great lighting tech and some impressive co-ordination by the actors.

Considering the devastating fragility of the original, a modernised version of The Seagull could have easily been a disaster. Anya Reiss breathes new life into this terrific play by adding up-to-date humour and sharp modern observations without losing any of the poetry of Chekhov’s classic.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

The Seagull runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 1st December 2012.
Box Office: 020 7407 0234 or book online at http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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