Lesley Sharp monstrously funny in tear-filled Chekhov
Creativity and destruction, and the past and the present, march cheek by jowl in Simon Stephens’ punchy new version of Chekhov’s early play. It’s directed by Sean Holmes with an eye to the illusions of theatre, and the delusions we hold about others and ourselves.
Played (mostly) in modern dress, it sits neatly in the Lyric Hammersmith, a contemporary building hiding a jewelbox 19th-century auditorium – old and new are in dialogue. Holmes makes great play of the fact that there is an audience on stage for would-be radical playwright Konstantin’s doomed play (resonant with its images of a planet destroyed), and that the characters constantly acknowledge the theatre audience.
It makes Konstanin’s cry for new forms seem less like the adolescent posturing of a young man who at 25 still calls his mother “mummy”, and more like a direct challenge to the audience, and possibly a note to Stephens himself. “Unless you take great care of it,” he says, “theatre can be the most tedious, old-fashioned, prejudiced, elitist form there is.” Stephens, Holmes and a crack cast ensure that it is never that, even if the pacing sometimes stutters. This is not about then but about now, not about them but about us.
The production artfully reminds us that we are in the theatre, with its shadowy scene changes played behind a white screen so it seems as if the stage is haunted. Hyemi Shin’s design offers an estate carpeted with emerald astro-turf and dazzling with fairy lights.
The more fake it is, the more it makes us see through the characters’ fakery. This makes it one of the funniest Seagulls, but also one of the most heartbreaking. The final confrontation between Brian Vernel’s passionate, emotionally infantilised Konstantin and Adelayo Adedayo’s sweetly, painfully earnest, star-struck Nina is almost unbearable.
Seldom has the play so clearly shown how the old inoculate themselves against the passion and idealism of the young by crushing them. Lesley Sharp’s Irina is monstrously funny but also terrifying in the way she so casually destroys her son and hastens Nina towards destruction as surely as Nicholas Gleaves’ egotistical writer, Boris. An emotionally acute, at times revelatory, evening. Lyn Gardner Until 4 November. Box office: 020-8741 6850.
Fake reality… Simon Stephens’ Seagull