By: Anton Chekov
Directed by: Trevor Nunn
Venue: Courtyard Theatre
Date: Friday 8th Jun 2007
We like the theatre, our seats were good, the hearing device was comfy, the set was fine, the translation clear and very enjoyable, the performances superb, and the production excellent. There was more comedy here than I’d ever seen in a Chekov play, helping me to see what Chekov meant when he described his plays as comedies. What also came across very clearly thanks to all of these factors working so well, was that this play has no heart. It’s a shell, an empty shell, with tremendous window dressing and nothing inside.
All of the characters were suffering, and how! For example, Masha, brilliantly played by Monica Dolan, was a suffering addict, obsessed with the idea of loving Konstantin. She attempts to assuage these yearnings with snuff and alcohol, and eventually with an empty marriage, but I got the feeling she’s determined never to be happy, silly cow. Wonderful as the performance was, and the humour she gets out of it, I couldn’t relate to her beyond a superficial level, and this was true of all the characters.
At the post-show discussion, Romola Garai, who plays Nina, reckoned that she just couldn’t play the upbeat, optimistic ending to Nina’s final scene as written. She felt it wasn’t right for her character at that point, and this sense of despair seems to permeate the whole play. I haven’t been aware of this emptiness before, so I’m assuming it’s mainly down to this production, but it certainly doesn’t make me more inclined to see the play again (I probably will, though).
It’s hard to remember now all the marvellous bits of delivery and business, but I do want to record a few items. Ian McKellen played Sorin tonight (he’s sharing the role with William Gaunt), and was a great source of humour. His hair was very fluffy, his character grumbled a lot, but he was also one of the kindest people there. Richard Goulding as Konstantin was a superbly spoilt brat, emotional age about twelve (or less). He threw a real tantrum when his mother spoiled his play, and while his emotional tizzies were very believable, they certainly weren’t attractive. He matures Konstantin into a more focused, determined person, though still with the emptiness inside. If only he could have got his end away with Nina, this whole play might have turned out differently. Or not. Romola Garai gave us a naive, rather stupid Nina, obsessed with romantic notions of fame, and far too easy to seduce. Her reprise of the opening of Konstantin’s play showed us how much she had come on as an actress – she filled it with despair and longing – and how much she’d been through as a person. Trigorin (Gerald Kyd) was good-looking, but empty. His description of what it’s like to be a writer may be Chekov’s equivalent of Shakespeare having Hamlet deliver a lecture to the players.
Finally, Frances Barber as Arkadina was superb. Despite her knee problems, she was throwing herself at Trigorin literally as well as emotionally. Their tussle on the rug was a bit stilted, as apparently she’s wearing a brace under her dress (post-show info again), but it worked. She managed all the rapid changes of expression that Arkadina goes through perfectly. I especially liked her howls of “I don’t have any money!”
I don’t want to imply that I didn’t enjoy myself tonight – this is still an interesting play about the Russian artistic set of the time, when various changes were taking place, and the production brings out aspects I haven’t seen before. So although I don’t feel cheated as such, I just couldn’t empathise with the characters’ situations, and therefore don’t see this as such a great production overall, compared with others that we’ve seen.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me