In the austere surroundings of the Southwark Playhouse, this version of The Seagull dispenses with hysterics and melodrama. What we are given instead is a crystallised and understated production, dripping with acting talent and subtle nuance.
In Anya Reiss’s new version of Chekhov’s play (from a literal tranlastion by Ilona Kohanchuk), much of the hysteria inherent in many productions is stripped away, along with the need for complicated set or costumes. The language is naturalistic despite the directness with which the characters speak – lines such as Masha’s terrifyingly depressed “I’m in mourning for my life” are given new breath. Reiss puts everyday words in the characters’ mouths and shows the mundanity and petty jealousies of their lives with precision.
This simplicity, enhanced by modern dress and minimal staging (Jean Chan), gives the cast room to shine. Under Russel Bolam’s deft directorial hand, this cast fills the vaults of the Playhouse with the deep melancholy of Chekhov’s Russia; the futility of spoilt and wasted lives is inescapable. And yet, there is the smallest expectation of better things right up until the end – dreams that the sorry, tangled relationships will resolve themselves, that the sick will be healed, that each character will get what they crave. The twists of fate are all the crueller for the tinges of hope that remain.
The cast are outstanding. It’s a slow play, and the stage is enlivened particularly by Anthony Howell’s disillusioned Trigorin and Lily James’s luminous Nina. James’s Nina is a remarkable creation – she is extraordinarily expressive without being over the top, and follows a totally believable trajectory from giggly, coquettish ingenue in the first half to unhinged and hopeless in the second. Her burgeoning relationship with Howell’s Trigorin is a joy to watch. Emily Dabbs makes a wonderfully frustrated and miserable Masha, struggling to escape what is expected of her and to ignore her unrequited love. Matthew Kelly is a twinkling and avuncular Dorn, and Jospeh Drake’s twitchy and helpless Konstantin is extremely well-judged.
The piece feels startlingly modern, greatly helped by Reiss’s choice of language. Nina’s speech about how much she craves fame for its own sake could be spoken by a twenty-first century teenager watching The X Factor. The beauty of it is that rather than shoe-horning in contemporary references or making the modern parallels explicit, what Reiss and Bolam have achieved is to make it clear that Chekhov really is timeless.
The Seagull is at Southwark Playhouse until 1 December. For information and tickets visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk.