QTC in association with Brisbane Festival
The Greenhouse Bille Brown Studio
September 5 – 26 2015
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Sorin: You cannot be without theatre.
Konstantin: Yes, but it needs a new approach.
There is nothing new in art except talent.
This is a story about how we tell stories… It’s also about our private stories; the ones we tell ourselves to give our lives meaning, the ones we cast ourselves inside of in our search of love and hope.
What endures, what echoes, on this stage is the essence of Chekhov’s The Seagull…
Daniel Evans, Writer & Director
This is The Seagull but not as we know it. Writer and Director, Daniel Evans, has respectfully wrung its neck and brought it back to life in the most spectacularly comical, typically Australian way. It would be in poor taste to say so, of course, but if you can imagine the Crocodile Hunter revived by a Pulp Fictionalised adrenaline shot, you’ll get a feeling for this production. Crikey! (I’m genuinely surprised that there’s not a croc or a Hills Hoist or a jar of Vegemite stashed somewhere in the set but like our films, I guess we’re trying to resist including them). Still, I think Chekhov would approve, even if his diehard fans and the traditionalists may not.
Handing anything from the classic canon to Dan Evans is probably considered a calculated risk by now, and it’s the sort of risk-taking we should expect to see more of.
The people in Chekhov’s plays are beyond damaged, but we know them – we are them – and from time to time we need a jolt just to remember what we’re doing here, especially those of us who insist on making art. Evans’ astute adaptation brings Chekhov’s characters, with all their misery and wry humour, into the new millennium for a brand new quick-to-comment audience. It’s an adaptation that would come across very well in bite-sized (140 character) pieces.
If you saw Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, you’ll know when you go to see The Seagull to be ready for anything. Some will find the modern day props and references too much, and others will chortle with the rest of the audience in genuine appreciation of the update. Some might wonder why they ever had to study the original text…
Interestingly, Stage Manager, Dan Sinclair provides a constant presence, waiting with props, a piano (yes, he plays it), a blackboard wall and white chalk, and a MacBook side stage. I love his presence because Chekhov can’t help but have his characters all languishing somewhere – in this workshop setting, designed with Keiran Swan and lit by Ben Hughes with sound designed by Guy Webster, they’re all plainly visible – it’s Sinclair (in his stage debut!) who is interesting to watch when the pace slows a little in between gags in the first three acts. It should be said that the pace of the final act is better measured, not as forced, with well-placed silences giving us time to pause and dread the unhappy ending.
Evans’ gift is his defiant comedy, and an uncanny ability to layer and meld the elements, incorporating all the contemporary references and whacky ideas that come from a level of thought that most of us don’t engage in very often. Or ever.
Remember Luc Besson’s film, Lucy? 100% brain engagement! It’s Evans at his best, whether you like it or not, feeding one-liners to everybody, alive or dead. That’s right. Anton, the stuffed seagull, has a voice and he has a lot to say, just in case you were missing all things meta.
As the ingénue Nina, Emily Burton finds a sweet kind of insecure crazy. Her sad, gentle madness could be a little closer to heartbreak though, and perhaps by the end of the season she’ll crack through the bewilderment we’ve come to know so well in order to offer a little less of the wide-eyed approach to…everything. Admittedly, she’s a beautifully wide-eyed, naïve Nina but there must be something more for this performer in a role one day to take her a little farther away from type.
Nicholas Gell, in his QTC debut, holds his own as Konstantin, bringing to the role an abundance of obsessive (self) destructive traits and artistic integrity/intensity, which only bemuses his mother, Irina, the “serious actress” of Australian TVC, soapie and “real theatre” fame.
Christen O’Leary must be the most physically intense and altogether together actor in Queensland right now (not to mention one of the busiest), every performance a masterclass in voice and movement, and character and connecting with others. Her Irina is unapologetically cruel and wholly fragile behind an impenetrable façade, collapsing just outside of the pages of the story, right on the edge of the household, as we do. Her momentary breakdown is uncomfortable, however; in this as in other heightened moments, the question of focus comes into play. (By contrast, another up-close split scene of beautifully shared dialogue between Nina and Tregorin, and Irina and Medvedenko makes this device work more effectively).
We’ve seen a lot of Jason Klarwein recently and there’s more to come before the year is out, when he joins Tama Matheson in The Odd Couple. As the passionate, destructive writer, Irina’s husband, Trigorin, he’s ideal. And as befits the brooding character of the original text, he stays silent and singular early on, commanding the stage even as Irina’s shadow, and coming to vivid, wicked life when Nina’s youth and vulnerability catches him, hook, line and sinker. This relationship, always challenging to pull off, suffers just a little on opening night from well-staged fiery passion, rather than truly untidy, insistent and insatiable lust. It will no doubt be safe enough and still racy enough to satisfy slightly younger audiences, but when we’re wholly aware of the images in advertising and on our screens, as long as we’re being current and pushing boundaries, let’s push our performers another inch…closer.
Barb Lowing (a strong, capable, lusty Ilya, completely obsessed with Wicked; her silent, smiling desperation enough to break our hearts), Helen Cassidy (Polina), Hugh Parker (Dorn), Lucas Stibbard (Medvedenko), Amy Ingram (Masha) and Brian Lucas (Sorin) round out the ensemble, each accomplished actor shining, each in a role that fits like a favourite pair of shoes.
But it’s Brian Lucas you’ll remember long after this season closes. As the terminally ill Sorin, he finds both the mad romp and the gentler, quieter way through life, as well as all the subtleties of the precious relationships and simple joys around him. If there’s a truly new and original (and so very intuitive) take on a Chekhovian character it’s in this honest actor’s performance, a moving reading of a flawed, loved and loving man. Brian Lucas brings to this role the kind of courage and commitment we’re accustomed to seeing on another state theatre company’s stage each time they reinvent a Chekhov, and it’s such a pleasure to witness the impact on artists and the public, of a deeply considered performance here.
Chekhov is the master of familiar, frustrating banality and tragedy and Evans a master of the digitally remastered re-release.
This version of The Seagull, stripped back and presented in “The Actors Studio” might not appeal to everyone, but everyone should consider it; Evans’ approach is still new and not yet so tired that we need to be overly critical of it. In fact, if we can be supportive of it we’ll help him – and other brilliant writers and directors – to find their voice and find their feet in a landscape that is typically unforgiving of the reconfigured, reinvented and re-imagined classics, which (whether we want them or not) everyone, everyone, everyone needs.
It’s curious that we can’t possibly tell what exactly will be considered great and important, and what will seem paltry and ridiculous…