The Seagull at Harold Pinter Theatre
This is theatrical perfection. A piece of genuinely pure stagecraft, presented to us stripped back to its barest bones. The stage is an unpainted chipboard box. The only props: ten identical green plastic chairs. A superlative ensemble cast, skilfully assembled with all the talent and balance of a championship-winning sports team, takes on a tight, imaginative, free-flowing script and transports us into a comical, poignant, tragic world that is both a long way from Chekhov’s setting, and exactly where we ought to be.
What’s it about? Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what it’s about. It’s about two writers, thrown into close proximity: one uncontrollably jealous of the other’s success, which success the other is profoundly uninterested in. It’s about a young woman, caught between them, trying to navigate her own wants and needs. It’s about the narcissism of an older woman who is a quite terrible mother to her son, and the havoc the abuse she metes out wreaks on his sense of self. It’s about bringing dysfunctional people together and watching what happens when they have to interact. The point is that the plot – so central to so many plays – takes a back seat in the hierarchy of importance in The Seagull. The play could end at the interval and you could go home feeling entirely fulfilled. Because the real value here is in the writing, the acting, and the direction under which this brilliant group is working.
Sometimes big celebrity names seem to be brought in to West End plays just to sell tickets. But director Jamie Lloyd doesn’t do things that way. And Emilia Clarke – best known for her role as Daenerys Targaryen on TV’s Game of Thrones – is certainly not here just to fill seats. She’s perfectly cast as aspiring actress Nina – a delicate, sensitive ingenue around which the men of the play build a variety of hopes and dreams. I’d seen her in GoT, and in the pretty ludicrous Hollywood movie Terminator: Genysis, but I had no idea she was this good. The thing is, though, whilst Clarke is the big star on paper, and her performance is absolutely beguiling and brilliant, what is most remarkable about this stunning revival is that she doesn’t stand out.
That’s because the rest of the cast are equally superb. They’re in perfect sync with one another, timing jokes and gut-wrenching pauses equally impeccably. Indira Varma, playing the older, manipulative and narcissistic actress Arkadina, has such charisma you’ll still be thinking about her days later. Sophie Wu, an actress and writer whose considerable talent has been criminally underused by the television, film and theatrical industries in this country over the last decade, turns in a wonderfully deadpan, monotonous performance as the emotionally closed-off Masha. Daniel Monks is superb as the tormented Konstantin; Tom Rhys Harries is equally good as Trigorin – a celebrated writer whose prose is infinitely more compelling and coherent than his broken, endlessly-revised-on-the-fly speech. Plenty of wry comic relief comes from Robert Glenister, Jason Barnett and Gerald Kyd, whilst Mika Onyx Johnson and Sara Powell (as Medvedenko and Polina, respectively) give earnest performances with great comic and tragic timing.
This revamped version is written by Anya Reiss – and what a script it is. Taught, funny, ruthlessly focused; every line of dialogue hewn from our language masterfully. And as for director Jamie Lloyd, well he is rather making a habit of this. His revival of Cyrano, starring James McAvoy, was also stylishly modernised, minimalist in staging and brought compellingly to the stage in a tight, ensemble performance. The Seagull is more of the same. I think he’s found his calling – bringing modern revivals like this to enthralled and enraptured audiences. Whatever he does next, go and see it.
But in the here and now, go and see The Seagull, while you still can.
Review by Daniel Bennett
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