Encore Theatre Magazine
:: Friday, July 07, 2006 ::
Shooting the Seagull
This blog has been out and proud as a Katie Mitchell fan before and she doesn't need us to ride to her defence.
But the critics have made complete fools of themselves this time. Critic after critic has slammed her current production of Chekhov's The Seagull at the National Theatre as a travesty of the original, a piece of shameless 'director's theatre' (the implication being that this is like rabies, a continental disease that we don't want over here, thank you very much). Martin Crimp has come in for a pasting for daring the cut the original (as if cutting a classic were some kind of wildly avant-garde practice). For the staggering bore Michael Billington, 'theatrical effect takes precedence over everything'. Oh my goodness, no, not really? Save us from theatrical theatre! There are repeated claims that the production is inaudible. This, dear friends, is bullshit. The production is very naturalistic in places and sometimes Mitchell has placed conversations out of hearing because it is more important that we see people are talking than that we hear what they are saying. The critics also go on about the lighting as if the production were performed in blackout. In fact Chris Davey's lighting is one of the most rich, subtle and affecting designs that I have seen at the National this decade. These constant complaints about being able to hear and see say more about the advancing age of the critics - and their insistence that everything be made completely obvious to them - than it does about Mitchell's finely judged production.
As for the liberties taken with the text, the critics are hallucinating. At one point, in Crimp's version, Masha tells Medvedenko, 'why don't you just piss off' which elderly spinster Billington declares to be 'Crimp at his coarsest'. If he thinks that's Crimp at his coarsest, he's not seen The Treatment or Attempts on Her Life. More significantly, it's not Crimp at his coarsest, it's Chekhov. The relationship between Masha and Medvedenko degrades to a horrible spectacle of grim, antagonistic failure. This relatively small phrase is a good rendering of the spitting frustration that Masha directs at her unloved husband. The first lines are blurred by the addition of a couple of lines being spoken as Masha and Medvedenko come on. Why is this a crime? 'Why are you always wearing black?'/ 'I'm in mourning for my life. I'm unhappy' is already an approximate rendering of the Russian. And just as Hamlet's dread having to utter 'To be or not to be', it is wise, in a production that tries to reconnect us with the story beyond its theatrically barnacled history, to blur the clangingly famous opening couplet.
Martin Kettle in a quite incomprehensible Guardian article believes that
if there is one thing that today's audience might be expected to know about Russia in those years, it is that there was a Soviet revolution going on. But not even Crimp has the audacity to insinuate verbal or visual references to kulaks, collective farms and five-year plans. So we are left with an updating that floats free of history, and is thus fundamentally misleading. In the ostensible cause of fully connecting with a contemporary audience, Crimp disconnects from reality - and from Chekhov.He's referring to the fact that the play seems to be updated to the late 1920s or 1930s, but, astonishingly, the characters don't mention the Soviet succession, five year plans, meetings of the Comintern or any of the rest of it. I would be interested if he could pick out in Chekhov's The Seagull the references to contemporary (1896) reality. Does Crimp's adaptation 'float free from history'? Or has the play got its own arm's-length attitude to its historical and cultural context depicting the characters as absorbed in their rural world, their theatrical memories, the stifling and abnormal excitation of the Russian avant-garde, which precisely does not pay attention to the world around it.
What the updating and the stripping away of all those elements which Chekhov, by his next play, had learned to strip away himself (asides, soliloquies, etc.) does is to bring us in touch with the play. Dorn's soliloquy about the value of Konstantin's play, for example, is always fudged in contemporary versions. We have no convention for soliloquy in naturalism, so it's always the rambling of an ageing man, muttering to himself, thinking out loud. Never satisfactory, because (a) that's just an unhappy compromise between naturalism and the conventions Chekhov was fleeing, and (b) Dorn is not a dotty old man. He's a strong and important character. So the lines are cut. It's evident that Dorn did admire the play, so what has been lost? Nothing. What has been gained? We understand the relationships between the characters much more: of course Polina loves Dorn; he's an exciting and attractive man with an eye to a future he'll never see because in Mitchell's production he, like Chekhov, has a chest infection that will kill him. We understand his closeness to Masha because she is undoubtedly his daughter. And the ripples of adulthood spread through the play. Juliet Stevenson's nicely understated Arkadina is not the stupid stage illusion that she is usually played to be. She is a real woman, fighting the ageing process, wrapped up in memories, desperate to keep hold of Trigorin. His betrayal of her with Nina is something she quite understands and is beside herself trying to stop. (It's very like Angus Wright's magnificent reinvention of Kulygin in Mitchell's Three Sisters, as a man whose heart was darkened by his wife's infidelity, not the comic cuckold of British stage tradition.)
Please see it if you can. It's the best Seagull of our generation.