Che­quered Chekhov

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS - THE SEAG­ULL New Lon­don Theatre, Lon­don WC2

AF­TER A trou­bled start in Strat­ford — to the an­noy­ance of crit­ics, last May’s press per­for­mance was de­layed for nearly a month by Frances Bar­ber’s cy­cling ac­ci­dent — Trevor Nunn’s RSC pro­duc­tion of The Seag­ull has fi­nally rolled into Lon­don on its world tour.

The play is part of a hugely an­tic­i­pated Shake­speare/Chekhov dou­ble bill that sees Ian McKellen re­turn to the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany af­ter 17 years and, more re­cently, af­ter the rel­a­tively friv­o­lous dis­trac­tions of play­ing Gan­dalf in the Lord of the Rings films and a scar­ily breasted Widow Twanky at the Old Vic.

His King Lear (also di­rected by Nunn, to be re­viewed next week) is all his. His Sorin — the age­ing owner of the coun­try es­tate in which Chekhov’s The Seag­ull is set — is shared on al­ter­nate nights with William Gaunt who gives a per­for­mance that is so good it makes you won­der why it has taken so long for him to make his RSC de­but.

With full grey beard, ro­tund fig­ure and a ten­dency for bluff and blus­ter, Gaunt brings out the Fal­staff in Sorin at least as much as Richard Goulding brings out the Ham­let in Kon­stantin.

Th­ese two pro­vide one of the evening’s high­lights, with Gaunt de­liv­er­ing a silent but ex­pres­sive re­sponse to each of Kon­stantin’s com­plaints about his vain mother, the age­ing ac­tress Arkad­ina. There is no bet­ter ex­am­ple of Nunn’s abil­ity to find the com­edy in this un­hap­pi­est of house­holds where love goes un­re­quited.

But it says some­thing less than pos­i­tive about a pro­duc­tion that is more mem­o­rable for mo­ments of de­tail — cli­max­ing in a tableau where Kon­stantin at­tempts to shoot him­self — than for the play’s great con­fronta­tions and rev­e­la­tions.

In terms of per­for­mance, what the evening lacks is re­straint. With Arkad­ina, Bar­ber is on safest ground as the in­se­cure ac­tress un­able to keep in thrall Ger­ald Kyd’s dash­ing and over­achiev­ing writer Trig­orin. Good though Bar­ber is, Kristin Scott Thomas’s re­cent more sub­tle and sar­donic ver­sion at the Royal Court re­mains the bench­mark.

As Kon­stantin, Arkad­ina’s angstrid­den son, Goulding would have de­liv­ered more with less hand wring­ing. And al­though as the frag­ile wannabe ac­tress Nina it makes psy­cho­log­i­cal sense for Ro­mola Garai to take her cue from Kon­stantin’s de­scrip­tion of her as “full of declam­a­tory speeches and melo­dra­matic ges­tur­ing”, Garai man­ages to turn that in­sight into af­fec­ta­tion, shap­ing each words with quiv­er­ing hands.

So apart from Gaunt, the best of the evening comes from the sup­port­ing per­for­mances — Ben Mey­jes’s painfully timid Medve­denko and, as his re­luc­tant wife, Mon­ica Dolan’s scorn­ful and de­pressed Masha. The re­sult makes for a rich but far from de­fin­i­tive evening. ( Tel: 0870 890 0141)

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