A great advantage of reviewing a canonical piece of literature
like The Seagull is that it’s not crucial to begin by summarising the plot.
Suffice it to say, it’s a play set in Russia at the turn of the 19th
century exploring the lives of relatively privileged, though unfulfilled people,
the delusional and vainglorious, the obsessed and the purposeless.
Classic texts become classics because they speak to us
across time and place.
While enjoying Independent Theatre’s 2022 production of The
Seagull, written by Russian literary giant Anton Chekov in 1895 and set in
rural Russia in the same time period, dramatizing the artistic struggle and its
conflicts with the mundane, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison with the
contemporary issues arts and creatives are facing today and in my own country,
As we face funding cuts to the already pandemic crippled
arts industry and the current restructuring of university fees for creative
degrees designed to make them less attractive and far less viable further
educational pursuits when compared with their STEM counterparts, a play about artistic
ideals and the challenges posed them by the difficulties and impediments of the
real world couldn’t feel more pertinent than it does in a theatre in Adelaide
Not only is it incumbent upon the performer to engage their
audience, but equally it is the job of a good audience member to be attentive,
to allow performer and text to affect thoughts and imagination in a way that only
granting them respect and attention can achieve. This is what classics achieve where
attentive audience members are concerned, speaking to us of issues with universal
and perennial purport. This is what The Seagull can do, when well-played. This
production of The Seagull was well-played, allowing the audience to reflect
upon the direct relevance of the themes that underlie Chekov’s much-loved
The play being so identifiably Russian, reflection upon the
current Russo-Ukraine conflict is almost inevitable, and the thoughtful,
symbolic set design couldn’t make it clearer whose side Independent Theatre is
on. A vivid yellow curtain strung across a deep blue backdrop dominates the scenery
for the first half of the production. A proud reference to the Ukrainian flag.
There was a degree of unintentional comedy with the string used
to hold the curtain in place becoming entangled with a couple of the performers
on stage, but this is something I’m sure the company will look into for future
performances. Not a detraction from the play, but maybe a distraction when it
made the audience laugh at inappropriate moments.
Director Rob Croser also wrote a explicit reflection upon
the Ukrainian invasion in the play’s program to the effect that Russian
literary greats like Chekhov “would have been appalled at what is happening to the
people, cities, towns and villages of that brave and wonderful country.”
This is an important axiom to remember. Whilst Putin and his
government subordinates and supporters may be acting egregiously, in bad faith,
by no means does that mean that all Russian people are doing the same. There is
variety in any population of people, and if this production conveys one
important message that we need to grasp right now, at this point in history, it’s
that there are people just like us in Russia, as in Ukraine, as in our own
backyards. We connect, and have connected so strongly with the characters in
Chekhov’s Seagull over so many decades, because we recognise their humanity, we
empathise with their struggles, because they are written as human beings, not
as Russians, per se. There are human beings in Russia suffering too, and we should
be mindful, careful not to paint the whole country with the same red Putin
Croser kept the Russian names and patronymics, the
references to Moscow, Kiev and Kharkov, in the play, but one place where there was
a little inconsistency, which unfortunately added a minor layer of confusion to
the performance, was in the accents used by the actors. It was never clear
whether they were supposed to be British or Australian.
Something like this often happens in productions of classic
texts. The heightened, florid, or dated language of a bygone era often causes
actors to treat their elocution differently, or give the words some extra sense
of reverence, which ends up too often making the speech sound unnatural.
Rebecca Kemp, who played proud, (semi?)-retired actress Irina
Arkadina, with such elegance, poise, and charming comedic conceit, had the exemplary
upper class British RP accent in the production, which was well suited to her
pretentious, grand character. She brought much needed humour to the production,
which is necessary to do justice to Chekhov who wanted this play to be a comedy
of absurd manners, and to avoid the trap of turning it into a morose melodrama.
A scene between Kemp and Patrick Marlin, who played the famous
novelist Boris Trigorin, with Trigorin in a chair and Arkadina at his knees,
involved an absurd degree of (not so heavy) petting, and provided a solid block
of continuous laughter – the comedic highlight of the night.
Marlin played Trigorin naturalistically, a captivating performance
which helped us empathise with the nuanced man, despite his bad “destructive” nature.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kate Van Der Horst, the comedically
gifted actress who brought the estate manager’s drug-addled, anguished daughter
Masha to life, with both great expressive comedy and touching tragic sincerity,
Adam Goodburn, the honey throated and charming singing doctor Dorn, and Julie
Quick, the exasperated lovelorn mother to Masha and admirer of the good Doctor,
effortlessly employed their natural Australian accents, which helped maintain
the play’s affecting realistic elements.
The other characters in the production fell somewhere in the
middle in terms of the accents they employed throughout. Some seemed to be
trying to do British, others spoke in Australian accents with obvious “Britishisms”
thrown in, and often actors vacillated between the two. Consistency across the
accents would have closed this production’s only major gap to immersion. Going
all in on the British, or having everyone speak in their natural contemporary voices
would have made setting and interpretation decisions clear, and not something
to wonder about while you should only be engaged in the action of the play.
The younger actors, Eddie Sims, who played tortured artist
and lover Konstantin Treplev, and Eloise Quinn-Valentine, who presented the naïve,
star-eyed young neighbour to the Treplevs, both brought immense physical energy
to their roles, which forced up the intensity of the play from the start.
They both maintained this energy throughout the entire
story, Sims being physically energetic, fast, fleet-footed and indefatigably gesticulatory,
and Quinn-Valentine being light, pacey, also energetically gesticulatory, and
with emphatic facial expressiveness. Brilliant ways for them to begin the show,
demanding the audience’s attention, but there needed to be more light and shade
from these two actors, especially in the final act when both are shattered,
depressed, disillusioned and dejected. A distinct change from ebullience, exuberance, and buoyancy
to something more reflective of their tragic experiences and frustrations after
the events of the first three acts in particular would have better suited the development
of the story.
David Roach was a kind, compassionate, frail, sympathetic
uncle Sorin. Another fine performance from an experienced actor. His scenes
with sister Arkadina were hilarious, and with Dr Dorn were thoughtful and touching.
Another mention is due Adam Goodburn at this point, whose
singing voice was light and divine. What an impressive “straight play” debut.
Leighton Vogt never disappoints. In this production he plays
the gruff and slightly dopey estate manager Shamraev, who would give a kingdom
for a horse. A funny and appropriately powerful performance.
Julie Quick also never fails to shine, regardless of the
size of the role she is given to play. Here she plays Shamraev’s wife, Polina,
and Masha’s mother. Polina’s a bit in love with the handsome local Dr Dorn, and
Quick brings that painful longing and desperation out of her character, while
also conveying poise, dignity, and great comedic timing.
Young teacher Medvedenko is played by Henry Bleby Williams,
who brought a loveable goofiness to his character, longing for his love for the
slightly “emo” Masha to be requited. Very sympathetic and charming performance when
the one speaking, but doesn’t need to do as much when not.
Gabe Maglesdorf didn’t have much to say as the frustrated servant
Yakov, but he brought the perfect amount of indignation out of his role, which
added another layer of humour to the show.
The lighting design was intuitive, logical, and really well established
the time differences between the four acts. Changing from the blue moonlight of
evening in act one, to the bright yellow morning in act two, then high noon in
act three, and a dim evening in act four, it was easy for the audience to follow
the story’s progression in large part due to this realistic lighting design.