The Seagull – Actors transcend writers by the embodiment of text. (Theatre Review)

The Seagull

The Depot Theatre with Secret House Theatre Company

From 6 – 16 December. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Bob Seary

The aesthetic stage, by its very nature, is severed by the ethical problem of concrete existence – self choice. The stage is for Chekhov an artificial actuality or shadow existence. Theatre is a kind of medium of the imagination and therefore separates these humans from existence. Much like the lake that contains everyone’s narcissistic reflection (gorgeously re-created here by Kyle Jonsson and Rodney Smithers as a permanent vertical commentary) both the actor and the audience are together in an illusory world of suffering and tension without experiencing the suffering and tension of lived experience. To watch The Seagull, Chekhov implies, is to sit around and talk about life without living it – just as most of his characters do in The Seagull. If we are to follow this point through to the actions of characters Irina (Deborah Galanos), Konstantin (James Smithers) and Boris (Abe Mitchell) one could argue the theatre serves to compensate for an inability to contend with existence. Each uses theatricality to attempt victories never accomplished in real life. Only one character appears to achieve the freedom all these characters crave, and that is Nina (Jane Angharad) the seagull herself, the only one to achieve Kierkegaard’s “synthesis and self-relation” (ontological characterization of human existence proposed in The Sickness Unto Death). For all her suffering, Nina will grow to an understanding that allows her to live in a kind of happiness. Nina lives with finitude, temporality and necessity as concrete given facts which determine the self. She equally finds infinitude, eternity and possibility which expand human life and transcend factual existence. Here she faces her facts but is able to inspire herself out of them – the opposite of Masha (Charmaine Bingwa) who is forced to only confront the facts of survival, and Konstantin who can’t leave the imaginary.

However, we are still sitting and watching the play, which can only provide infinity and possibility. For us, to watch such an existentialist writer like Chekhov (and in fact all writers) is to embrace the danger characteristic of possibility as well as transcend a given facticity. For Kierkegaard the following statements appear in Repetition: “There is probably no young person with any imagination who has not at times been enthralled by the magic of the theatre and wished to be swept along into that artificial actuality in order, like a double, to see and hear himself and to split himself up into every possible variation of himself, and nevertheless in such a way that every variation is still himself.” We watch Nina as her possibility is offered to her, but we only hear about her Real coming in to crush her. Is not this our very experience of theatre? We see possibility, know finitude awaits us outside, and that we must pass through both these experiences to reach ourselves. Nina (and the audience) does not find herself by returning to a given self, but rather by contending with various possibilities of realisation. Nina does not “find” herself, she “becomes” herself. We, the audience witness this, knowing we are given possibility (our own version of Trigorin) in order to discover concreteness. The value of aesthetics is grounded in the power to wish. So many of Chekhov’s characters reflect us as they sit around and wish.

And even so, we are compelled to notice even more in Chekov when directed by Anthony Skuse. The very question of artistic creativity comes under fire, and we are forced to reconsider its meaning. For Kierkegaard (and therefore possibly Chekhov) art is expressing and representing an idea. Language has a special place in the arts because of its connection to the concrete and its special relationship to time, which painting and sculpture (for example) do not evoke. Language is directed to our ears. Even reading is a hearing activity. Through language ideas achieve their highest expression. It is no mistake that two of Chekhov’s creatives are male writers. However, theatre goes a step further than reading, in that the words are not only heard, they are literal and embodied. In theatre it is the actor who gives the words their additional meaning, and the director who calls these forth. Rather than appearing abstractly, words are embodied, linked and conveyed through the wholeness of the actor’s character. There is a feint suggestion that the actor’s achievement is higher than the writers since by incarnating the linguistic creation the actor brings the words a new light. The original idea is made complete by its concreteness in the actor’s personality. It is no mistake that both writers seek to dominate and control female actors in The Seagull. In the theatrical medium, the idea becomes complete and assumes depth in the personality of the actresses who express it through the totality of her powers. The tragically undertalented Konstantin is consumed by the great actress (s)mother and the talented but idle Trigorin, who can’t impact Irina, turns on the youth and talent of Nina, rendering her hopelessly mediocre. Nina transcends this torture by discovering her freedom, but Trigorin will return to his destiny and Konstantin will try to escape it. The gull, alive and dead embodies the transference of this creativity. Is it any wonder that sixty years later Daphne du Maurier will write a novella that sees a flock of gulls turn on a small waterside town to destroy them after a significant change in the weather? Or that Alfred Hitchcock will take this story, and bring it back to the idea of the female actor who embodies The Idea?

The Depot Theatre have had a wonderful 2017 and here again, is a superb production under their roof. Secret House make a fine partnership in Anthony Skuse who calls forth a vibrant, gripping production – and for Chekhov that is no small thing. Never has ennui appeared so enthralling as these many characters (and what a fulsome interesting bunch they are) embody the role and the actor with perfection. Much of this cleverness is in the accents; the actors all perform in their natural voice. This moves The Idea beyond authenticity into the real and reaches into the psyche of the audience with great skill. Anthony Skuse’s adaptation straddles existential Russia with postmodern Sydney with a strangely seamless integration that brings the characters alive as if they were neighbors. Actors watching actors, writers watching writers, and all of us watching writers watching writers and actors presents a remarkably contemporary experience that moves Chekhov from theory to vibrant suggestion.

The cast are all on point from the charismatic Charmaine Bingwa as Masha through to the casually philosophical Alan Faulkner as Sorin, such that each and every one warrants an accolade. Deborah Galanos has huge shoes to fill as Irina and fulfils this role with magnetic and confident accomplishment. Secret House co directors Jane Angharad and James Smithers each embody their roles with intensity of performances that remains with you for several days, and there are marvellous musical sounds that bring the expereince to vibrant life. Liam O’Keefe lights a very interesting set by Kyle Jonsson that sees the audience significantly elevated which further contributes to our own existential experience of Chekhov’s ideas.

The Seagull is a stunning production that brings Chekhov to new life. If this writer is a mystery to you in any way (or if you just don’t get what the fuss is about) this production will go a long way to solving the mystery. If you are a Chekhov fan, don’t miss it.