Stage Door Review 2023

The Seagull

Wednesday, April 19, 2023


by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Simon Stephens, directed by Daniel Brooks

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

April 13-May 7, 2023

Konstantin: “Theatre is a dreamscape”

Soulpepper’s current production of The Seagull is the best production of the Chekhov classic you are ever likely to see. Not only has director Daniel Brooks created a true ensemble from his carefully selected cast but he frequently and cleverly breaks the theatrical illusion, a ploy perfectly in keeping with a play about actors, playwrights and the theatre.

Like Chekhov’s three other great plays, The Seagull features four acts of Russian aristocrats lounging about in their country house doing next to nothing. All four of these plays concern change in different ways. In Three Sisters (1901) and Uncle Vanya (1898), there are malign agents of change in the house. In The Cherry Orchard (1904), there is a deadline to meet in selling part of the estate, the orchard, in order to pay off the family’s debts.

In The Seagull (1895), the first of the plays, the would-be agent of change is not an interloper as in the later three, but Konstantin, a member of the family itself. His tragicomedy is that his wish for change has no effect at all. Chekhov considered The Seagull a comedy and, though the tone is generally comic, the play ends with the older generation defeating the younger – the antithesis of traditional comedy.

The play begins with the twentysomething Konstantin preparing to present a new play. His star and his muse is the 19-year-old Nina from the neighbouring estate, a woman Konstantin is hopelessly in love with but who does not regard Konstantin with the same emotion. A small stage by the lake has been built. Here the main inhabitants of the estate gather to see what Konstantin has created since he believes that the present forms of theatre, such as those his mother Irina acts in, are outmoded and must be replaced with new forms.

It turns out that Konstantin’s new form is what we would now call symbolist drama. The time of the action is thousands of years after all life has died on earth and Nina represents the world-soul mourning what has happened. Irina interrupts the plays more than once until Konstantin shuts down the performance in a fury and everyone is left wondering what is wrong.

The first act of The Seagull sets out the dynamics between the characters that will play out through the rest of the action. Simeon, a local schoolteacher is in love with Masha, daughter of the estate manager Peter and his wife Paulina, but she rejects his love because she is in love with Konstantin, who rejects her love. Konstantin is in love with Nina, but she does not return his affection. She is bedazzled by the author Trigorin, who is Irina’s current lover, and wants to be an actress and know the life of fame that she thinks must elevate him above all other people.

Thus we see that the play’s structure rests on a quadrangle of relationships with the older generation of Konstantin’s mother Irina and her lover Trigorin on one side faced by the younger generation of Konstantin and Nina on the other. The square is composed of a writer, Trigorin, and a would-be writer, Konstantin; an actress, Irina, and a would-be actress, Nina. The square links two triangles. Konstantin loves and seeks approval from both Irina and Nina. Trigorin loves Irina out of habit but, tragically, falls in love with Nina, whom he feels has revived his creativity.

This structure might seem obvious, but it is a sad reality that two many directors either don’t see it or can’t convey it to the audience. Director Chris Abraham made this structure clear in his fine production of The Seagull in 2015. Now director Daniel Brooks makes it equally clear which is extremely important since it becomes the engine that drives the action and generates tension.

From the failure of Konstantin’s play onwards the characters’ circumstances only disimprove. Konstantin and Nina become increasingly estranged and desperate. Konstantin shoots a seagull, a bird with which Nina had identified herself, and then tries to shoot himself. Nina becomes more entranced with Trigorin and ignores his remark that he would write a story about a man who ruins the life of an innocent young girl because he has nothing better to do.

What sets Brooks’s Seagull apart from the previous fine Seagulls I’ve seen is his constant emphasizing of the play’s artifice. Certainly this is the first Seagull I’ve seen that begins with a vintage recording of “There's No Business Like Show Business”. The American song from 1946 shows that we’re not in the Russian countryside in 1895. Shannon Lea Doyle’s set is made to look like a set still under construction. The side walls are covered in a cloth that looks like untreated plywood and the back wall is covered with a drop of translucent plastic. To underscore the artifice of it all, Brooks has the servant Joseph tape a sign saying “LAKE” on the plastic, since the small stage for Konstantin’s play is said to be by the lake. The stage floor is made of wooden planks through which some fake grass is growing. When a character has a soliloquy, Brooks has them step downstage centre and deliver it directly to the audience.

For the play the onstage audience sits on child-size stacking chairs. This suggests both that Konstantin has been staging plays here since childhood and that Konstantin, who claims to know more about the theatre than his audience, also regards them as children.

When Paulina brings Irina a bowl of plums, Jospeh takes them. One he tosses toward the audience and we hear the sound of hollow plastic. When Konstantin divides the dacha’s living area into two, Brooks signals this with another sheet of plastic that unrolls from the ceiling. Before Konstantin’s play begins in Act 1, Konstantin tells Nina that the theatre is a dreamscape. Brooks’s direction tells us otherwise – that the theatre is an imposture that we the audience choose to accept as “real”.

The production is minimalist using only the most necessary furniture and props. Aside from the stacking chairs, the chairs don’t match and a pair of seats from a theatre is part of the household décor.

Snezana Pesic’s costumes generally evoke the present but are still an odd mix. The oldest member of the family, Peter, dresses as if it were the late 19th century, but the clothing of Irina and Trigorin suggests the styles of the 1950s. Masha wears goth boots with platform soles but doesn’t follow the style through as if she can’t commit herself to complete revolt. Nina’s one-piece dresses look like they are from the 1930s and Konstantin wears a long artist’s duster that references the late 19th century but also sports a curly undercut hairstyle which is a 21st-century look.

It is a tribute to Pesic, and the show’s original designer Lorenzo Savoini, that these disparate styles seem to go together so well. The design suits the 2017 adaptation of The Seagull that Brooks uses by Simon Stephens, who also adapted Blindness by José Saramago seen here in 2021 and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon seen here in 2017. Stephens has updated the language to include modern profanity and changed the currency from rubles to dollars. But his characters still require horses for their carriages to meet the train on time and the doctor still carries a bottle of ether in his bag. Thus Stephens’s setting and Brooks’s is somewhere between 1895 and the present which bespeaks the basic reality of staging a play from 1895 in 2023.

The most difficult task directors face in directing Chekhov is to draw ensemble acting from a cast that may never have worked together. The cast of The Seagull includes three founders of Soulpepper – Oliver Dennis, Diego Matamoros and Robin Stevan – along with three actors making their Soulpepper debuts – Ellie Ellwand, Farhang Ghajar and Randy Hughson. Under Brooks the cast conveys the feeling of an extended family who have lived so long together that everyone knows everyone else quirks and habits.

As Konstantin, Paolo Santalucia gives what may be his best ever performance. He plays Konstantin as a lost soul who wants to be a writer and rages against the present norms but is eaten away with doubt about his own abilities. Paolo Santalucia makes Konstantin look as if he has just been crying or is about to cry, so unhappy is the character with his life. Konstantin wants his mother’s love but knows she can’t give it. He wants Nina’s love and dies inside as he sees her captivated by Trigorin. Santalucia captures all the contradictions roiling within this young man and shows that they only grow worse as time goes on.

As Nina, Hailey Gillis also gives a best-ever performance. She plays Nina as a wide-eyed innocent who has talent enough to make Konstantin’s play not sound like pure nonsense. She is a country girl enamoured with the renown that she thinks Irina and Trigorin must enjoy, even if she has no real concept of what fame is. Even after Trigorin speaks of fame to her in the most negative terms, Nina seems even more intrigued. Gillis’s account of Nina’s speech in Act 4 is a masterpiece of acting. Gillis has Nina try to convince Konstantin how happy she is now while practically breaking down under the effort of convincing herself she is happy. I’ve never seen a sad and confused state of mind so movingly portrayed.

As for the two principal adults in the live of Konstantin and Nina, Michelle Monteith as Irina and Raoul Bhaneja as Trigorin are as nasty a duo as one can imagine. Like all of the characters in the play, Irina and Trigorin constantly seek affirmations of their self-worth. The difference is that they have achieved fame and importance in the outside world whereas Konstantin and Nina have nothing. Indeed, the fact that Irina and Trigorin still need praise to be happy demonstrates how utterly shallow they are. Michelle Monteith plays Irina as extraordinarily vain. The fact that Irina has a son in his twenties is an embarrassment because it indicates her age. Monteith shows Irina as embarrassingly proud of how good she looks and dotes on positive comments men make about her. Yet, Irina has nothing positive to say about anyone else and Monteith makes this trait in Irina especially grating.

Raoul Bhaneja, who hasn’t acted in an ensemble for some time, is an excellent choice. He shows that Trigorin and Irina are really two of a kind, both in their neuroses and in their view of themselves as superior to everyone else. Bhaneja presents Trigorin’s seduction of Nina as a conscious choice, a fact that reveals Trigorin’s character at its very worst. Yet, when Trigorin gives his long speech explaining to Nina the pain of being a writer, of never being able to look at anything except as potential material, Bhaneja delivers it with such passion that he convinces us that for once Trigorin is, for once, revealing something real about himself.

The other characters reflect the theme of the four primary characters in various ways. Masha, the daughter of the estate manager and his wife, begins the play with its most famous line, “I'm in mourning for my life”. She is in mourning because her love for Konstantin is unreciprocated, yet she spurns the ardent love of Simeon. Ellie Ellwand plays Masha’s despair as comically melodramatic and narcissistic. Like so many of the characters Masha would rather wallow in the regret for the life she can’t have rather than enjoying the life she can have.

In Simeon, Farhang Ghajar gives a fine portrait of a dull but thoroughly good man who is so happy when Masha marries him that he ignores the sullenness of her demeanour.

Leo, the estate manager (Ilya in the original), his wife Paulina and the doctor Hugo (Yevgeny in the original) form a triangle that is a comic parallel to the two triangles formed by the four main characters. Hughson makes Leo a dim-witted lout who seems to begrudge people the use of his horses just as a petty sign of his power. Robin Stevan makes Paulina the least neurotic woman in the play, one who has arranged to have the pleasure her husband doesn’t supply. Hugo is the supplier of that pleasure and one sign of Leo’s dimness is that he doesn’t seem aware of this.

Yet, even Paulina wants more than Hugo is prepared to give and Stevan has a superb scene in which Paulina debases herself before Hugo begging him to give up other women and to take her away. Despite this affair and his treatment of Paulina, Diego Matamoros lends the doctor a sense of dignity that the other characters lack. He is the one who says he found some good in Konstantin’s play and encourages him not to give up.

Rounding out the cast are Oliver Dennis as Peter Sorin, Irina’s brother, and Dan Mousseau as the servant Jacob. Peter is the survivor from the past whom everyone ignores. Dennis makes him a comic figure who keeps demanding medicine that he doesn’t need from the doctor. Yet, as the action progresses, we note that Peter does decline in strength and thus becomes a symbol of the society all the characters inhabit. Mousseau’s Jacob is very near to the play’s fool whose comments and silences seems to mock the people he works for.

With such detailed direction Brooks reveals The Seagull as the incredibly rich play it is. Stephens’s adaptation may give the language a startling newness, but the play itself is already a radical statement. If the world of the older generation is unwilling to change and gives the younger generation nothing to hope for, only disaster will follow. This is a sentiment that seems even more valid now that it did at the start of this century. In short, Brooks’s production of The Seagull achieves greatness. Brooks may present theatre as an artifice, but it is an artifice that makes people think and feel. This is theatre no one who cares about theatre can afford to miss.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Diego Matamoros as Hugo, Robin Stevan as Paulina, Randy Hughson as Leo, Ellie Ellwand as Masha, Raoul Bhaneja as Trigorin, Michelle Monteith as Irina and Oliver Dennis as Peter; Hailey Gillis as Nina; Paolo Santalucia as Konstantin and Michelle Monteith as Irina; Hailey Gillis as Nina and Raoul Bhaneja as Trigorin. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

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