That grinding sound coming from the direction of my blog is me revising my critical view about updating Chekhov's plays to the modern era. Anya Reiss's sparkling rewrite of The Seagull is an absolute triumph which won me over completely. But I'm still angry at Southwark Playhouse, for reasons which I shall explain.
After the Moscow Vakhtangov Theatre's misguided attempt to give Uncle Vanya an expressionist twist, I was desperate for something more naturalistic. Reiss's sensitively worded new version captures the psychological nuances of the dialogue between Chekhov's characters beautifully without trying to distort them into something different from the original. My view of Chekhov has always been that his plays are so rooted in the social context of late 19th century Russian provincial life that much of their meaning is lost by changing the period and location. This is particularly true of The Cherry Orchard, but The Seagull is less tied to a specific social context. It's a play about success and failure, about artistic talent and its absence, and about dashed hopes of happiness. I didn't like Katie Mitchell's version at the National Theatre a few years ago, but this one captures the spirit of the original perfectly.
Reiss and the director Russell Bolam convey the isolation of rural Russia by placing the play on an isolated island, where the ferry is only reachable by Land Rover. Arkadina grumbles about the lack of a mobile phone signal, Dorn the doctor offers his patients a paracetamol, and Konstantin writes on a laptop. But the characters are still Chekhov's. When Konstantin and his mother have their big confrontation in Act Three and Arkadina throws insults at her despised son, Reiss doesn't offer an exact translation, more of a paraphrase: 'You are a deluded pretentious little scrounger!' But the wounding sense is precisely right, and fragile Konstantin collapses into a foetal ball at his mother's feet.
This is the point at which I would like to praise not just Reiss's dialogue and Bolam's beautifully paced direction, but the excellent casting and the individual performances. Alas, with three or four performances to the end of the sellout run, there were no more printed programmes on Wednesday. So the only namecheck I can offer is the well-known Matthew Kelly as the cynical doctor Dorn. All I can say is that xxxxxxx is superb as the actressy actress Arkadina, xxxxxx is delightful as Nina and xxxxx is just as perfect as the sucessfully mediocre writer Trigorin. These three are all survivors, though Nina appears battered and bruised in the final act. The one who doesn't survive is Konstantin, and xxxxx conveys his isolation and inadequacy in heart-rending fashion. There are equally strong performances in the other roles, and I only wish I knew the actors' names.
I'm angry about this because even if printed programmes run out, there should be no problem in running off some cast lists, or posting the actors' names in the foyer. Even the lowliest am-dram society does that, and the fact that Southwark Playhouse doesn't think it's necessary shows contempt for its paying customers. Even worse, it shows contempt for the actors. Matthew Kelly and one or two others are experienced players who probably don't need the recognition, but the majority of the cast are younger and still negotiating the slippery foothills of their profession. They deserve to have their names broadcast to the audience and not be left in anonymity.