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)