The Seagull - Sydney Theatre Company (NSW)
By Anton Chekhov in a new adaptation by Andrew Upton.
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney
Until 16th December, 2023
- A new adaptation of Chekhov's timely and relevant work, STC's production sizzles with a tense atmosphere but ultimately doesn't explode -
What does it take to make great art and, to that extent, theatre? How much does the artist themselves need to sacrifice? Does true art require sacrifice? What is the symbolism of the seagull killed by Constantine (Harry Greenwood) in Act One? And where does Hamlet fit into all of this?
As the former Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company, Andrew Upton has never shied away from expressing his adoration for Anton Chekhov’s work. Upton’s first venture into Chekhov for STC started in 2005 with The Cherry Orchard, starring then Artistic Director, Robyn Nevin. Following this was his adaptation of Uncle Vanya in 2010 which starred Richard Roxburgh and Upton’s wife Cate Blanchett, who also went on to star in his rewrite of Chekhov’s sprawling, untitled first play which became The Present. Most recently, Upton adapted his third of Chekhov’s major plays, Three Sisters in 2017 and now has turned his attention to the fourth in Chekhov’s anthology, and perhaps his most poignant for the current state of theatre, The Seagull.
The cast of STC's production of The Seagull 2023. Images by Prudence Upton
Amongst the multitude of questions raised by Chekhov in his truest attempt at naturalism and realism in his works, the audience finds Upton, equally attempting to transpose and contemporise Chekhov’s words, characters and setting into a family estate home in rural Australia. That is to say, not all of it exactly works well.
Whilst it’s clear we’re not in 2023 Australia (Greenwood types rapidly on a spherical Apple laptop) there are plot points to remove the need for technological implications in Chekhov’s plot. The lack of wifi in the family’s country home is lacking - although they needn’t mind if they are with Optus - as Upton incorporates mozzies and other such Aussie slang into the script. The clearly Russian names are still, however, ever present and The Seagull eventually finds itself sitting between the void of a successful adaptation and an incomplete reimagining.
Under the direction of Imara Savage, Upton’s adaptation frames itself to question the state of theatre in our contemporary society. David Fleischer’s set design utilises a wooden border around the stage, as the curtain rises on a similarly framed wooden border of a stage on the edge of the family’s lake. Positioned in a comically large fashion is the famous gun which, for those of you moviegoers and theatre aficionados out there will know, must go off before the end of the play. It’s the immediacy of this that positions the audience to think about each and every syllable uttered, with an almost Brechtian touch, questioning what we are watching.
an extraordinarily grounded performance by Mabel Li...back in fine form as Boris, Schmitz is as biting as ever.
Greenwood’s Constantine is our tortured artist, embodying a certain Danish Prince in the equally torturous desire for his famous mother’s approval (a flamboyant performance by Sigrid Thornton) as she flaunts her equally famous new partner around, the writer Boris Trigorin (played with a smarmy earthiness by Toby Schmitz). Throughout, Constantine comments on the many notions of what makes great art as he both envies Trigorin’s fame and despises his mother’s choice in a partner, all the while doting on his muse, Nina (an extraordinarily grounded performance by Mabel Li) who lusts after the fame of Boris.
What Upton’s adaptation of Chekhov’s play does well is turning a metaphorical mirror towards theatre itself, excavating the inherent desire that creatives hold, but also how an unchecked desire can both create as well as destroy. Nina’s symbolic connection to the famed Seagull foreshadows her eventual demise under Trigorin’s awareness that their affiliation will eventually destroy her, as it does for Constantine to lose his muse and ultimately his soul’s desire to create.
Savage handles her cast well as each adds their own flair to the atmosphere of the piece, which is at times claustrophobic (aided by Fleischer’s final act stage design of a rectangular, suffocating corridor of the family house) and exuberantly hilarious. Sean O’Shea’s Peter, uncle to Constantine and owner of the estate, is raucously amusing as the dithery uncle whose highlight comes in an anxiety fuelled speech about goats. Whereas Megan Wilding (hot off her incredibly funny performance in The Importance of Being Earnest) provides a layered performance of humility as well as extremely sharp and funny teenage angst.
Back in fine form as Boris, Schmitz is as biting as ever. Exposing Boris’ fragility and weakened sense of success as he gives into the idea of seducing Nina, Schmitz adeptly handles the role. Opposite, Thornton’s Irina is oily and poisonous, but not as comedic as what she could possibly have been in contrast to the other characters around her.
rich, thought-provoking performances and biting social commentary...
But despite the crackling and simmering atmosphere created by the cast, there was a sense of an undefined weight placed upon the production itself, whether this was influenced by outside forces or the elements of the production was unclear. This could purely have been the ineffective pacing to help move the story to its inevitable conclusion, or it may have been a side effect of Max Lyandvert’s haunting sound design in the final act.
The Seagull may not hold itself up to Upton’s lauded success at his other interpretations of Chekhov’s plays, but nonetheless, there is plenty here to satisfy audiences as the Sydney Theatre Company’s final production of 2023. With rich, thought-provoking performances and biting social commentary, there is much more to this version of The Seagull than meets the eye.
Director Imara Savage Set Designer David Fleischer Costume Designer Renée Mulder Lighting Designer Amelia Lever-Davidson Composer & Sound Designer Max Lyandvert Literal Translator Marina Lobastov Assistant Director Ian Michael Movement Consultants Tim Dashwood, Troy Honeysett Intimacy Coordinator Chloë Dallimore
With Arka Das, Michael Denkha, Harry Greenwood, Markus Hamilton, Mabel Li, Sean O'Shea, Toby Schmitz, Sigrid Thornton, Megan Wilding, Brigid Zengeni
Marketing image Rene Vaile