Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 2, 2008
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Christopher Hampton. Directed by Ian Rickson. Scenic and costume design by Hildegard Bechtler. Lighting design by Peter Mumford. Sound design by Ian Dickinson. Composer Stephen Warbeck. Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Peter Sarsgaard, Mackenzie Crook, with Art Malik, Carey Mulligan, Pearce Quigley, Peter Wight, Zoe Kazan, Ann Dowd, Julian Gamble, Christopher Patrick Nolan, Mary Rose, Mark Montgomery.
As directed by Ian Rickson, when the actress Arkadina muses, “I could play a girl of 15,” for once the joke is not on her. This line is one of the major waypoints for this role, an anchor around which an entire characterization can be built. When played straight, Arkadina looks deluded; when it’s self-conscious, she’s regretful; and when it’s mocking, she withers away right into pathetic. But the wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas has happened upon a more infrequent but powerfully telling variation: Don’t play the line at all - just live it.
If you’re seated close enough to the stage, and if you peer very intently at Scott Thomas’s brow, you might notice a line or two that belies Arkadina’s claim. But that much work really is required. Bearing an impeccable figure, a warmly affected poise, and most importantly a plangent coquettishness, this Arkadina appears as precisely the masterfully preserved work of classical art she always strives to impersonate. She’s aware she can’t hold off the ravaging effects of racing years forever, but for now she is still in complete (if fading) control.
Purists, however, may balk at some of the new avenues revealed by Rickson and his company as a result of Hampton’s and Scott Thomas’s youthening of the play. Arkadina’s barely receded beauty forces a refashioning of her relationship with her struggling-writer son Konstantin (Mackenzie Crook, every bit the “petty bourgeois from Kiev” Konstantin sees in himself): His ongoing quest for “new forms” seems more futile than ever opposite a mother who never convincingly embodies the old ways he’s rebelling against. Nina (Carey Mulligan), his lust-worthy, aspiring-actress muse, at times seems more robustly old-fashioned, grudgingly accepting the evolving ways you never believe she believes in - truly an empty-vessel star in the making.
Such twisting also gives Konstantin and Nina’s interactions an intriguing undercurrent that echoes Freudian ideas about boys wanting to marry their mothers. It even receives a clever counterpart in Nina’s own yearnings for Trigorin, the middlebrow writer who’s Arkadina’s current companion and is played by the unusually avuncular Peter Sarsgaard with a spine-snapping world-weariness. Trigorin’s tentative manner, careful voice, and even more reluctant talent make him appear older than both Nina and Arkadina, suggesting that groping at the past is more debilitating for him than for anyone else. And the walls of unrequited longing between him and Nina especially cast a dispiriting shadow over the man Trigorin thinks he’s supposed to be.
The rest of the production, if hardly moribund, is less innovative. The set and costumes (Hildegard Bechtler) and the lights (Peter Mumford) are exquisitely shabby representations of life on the estate of Arkadina’s brother, Sorin, but presage too much by being in mourning for the world long before the characters are. The other actors, too, haven’t found much in the way of new forms: Peter Wight dissolves with a too-anxious rapidity as the ailing Sorin; Pearce Quigley and Zoe Kazan, as the cat-and-mouse schoolteacher Medvedenko and the servant girl Masha, can’t overcome their own superfluity opposite a Konstantin and Nina who fulfill their typically reflective roles in the story.
Perhaps the most fascinating casualty is Art Malik. His doctor Dorn is strangely vague, noticeably less in tune than tends to be the case with the deeper meanings of the sea changes taking place around him. This is not, however, surprising, and under Rickson’s leadership, you don’t much miss him. The battles that Arkadina, Trigorin, Konstantin, and Nina wage with their own obsolescence are far more interesting this time around, and don’t need a realist to expose them.
The saddest and scariest thing about these people is that when they’re about to walk to their doom, they’re doing it with their eyes wide open. They’ve seen firsthand the boundaries between truth and fiction, even as they blur them themselves, and are forsaking those lessons, probably to their own peril. When this Seagull is setting up and paying off such moments, it’s the youngest, freshest show on Broadway.