Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Seagull, Nuffield Theatre

Review: The Seagull, Nuffield Theatre

Published in The Telegraph, 18.04.2013

After eight years in charge, Rupert Goold will leave the innovative Headlong Theatre – his baby, really – for Islington’s Almeida next autumn. On the evidence of this superb adaptation of The Seagull that he’s commissioned, the question of artistic mantles is clearly weighing on his mind.

John Donnelly’s updated version is not a radical reimagining like the Young Vic’s Three Sisters, but a sharp, contemporary reading that throws Chekhov’s play into clear focus. He draws out the play’s aesthetic debate, punching through to broader generational tensions, and lets the catalogue of imbalanced loves – which can drag Chekhov towards melodrama – slip into the background.

Alexander Cobb’s Konstantin would see artistic revolution. Not for him the egocentric complacency of mummy’s acting career, nor the misty-eyed nostalgia of luvvy-loving estate manager Shamrayev. The aspiring playwright wants an overhaul, but strains too hard for originality. He has none of Nina’s natural charm, nor the effortless, honest simplicity of Gyuri Sarossy’s coy, twitchy Trigorin.

Donnelly asks what makes an artist and airs all sides without tipping the scales. If he advocates anything, it’s a gentle progressiveness that pays dues to past masters, but still probes away – advice he’s self-aware enough to follow, tweaking Chekhov’s text without twisting it.

All this aesthetics is a front for generational relations. Here, youth is devastatingly brittle – raised to believe it can achieve anything and now belittled by established elders for even daring to try. Director Blanche McIntyre, who – despite a last-minute tonal misfire – gets bolder and better with every production, brilliantly implies that each character’s future lies in another’s embittered present.

Better still, she skewers the self-indulgence of these bourgeois woes by keeping hired handyman Yakov onstage throughout, labouring away on Laura Hopkins’ dynamic set. No time for existential angst when you’ve a living to earn.

Cobb captures the pent-up fury of the plain small-town teen, while recent RADA graduate Pearl Chanda gradually stiffens into self-consciousness as Nina. Abigail Cruttenden nails Arkadina’s see-through narcissism, with every accusation reflecting an insecurity of her own.

This is an extraordinary take on Chekhov’s play: layered, feisty, gorgeously melancholic and, lest I forget, frequently droll. All of which proves, undoubtedly, that Headlong’s future is in very safe hands indeed.

Photograph: Headlong Theatre

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