THE SEAGULL – Open Air Theatre

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★★
Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park – until 11 July 2015

CHEKHOV UNDER THE TREES

Fortune favours the brave, and the meteorological riskiness of outdoor theatre sometimes pays handsomely. A great heron flew over, squawking doom, just as Irina screamed her frantic possession of the appalling Trigorin and Chekhov’s tragicomic household moved towards disaster. The moon rose over the card-players as beyond the window under a darkening sky Konstantin found a deranged, ruined Nina. The thunderstorm and sluicing rain from behind Jon Bausor’s strange mirrored canopy were false, but the intensity and brooding darkness of old Sorin’s struggling estate were no more or less real than the rustling trees of the real park. Perfect.

Its the first Chekhov play to be done here, and the most obvious: its first act in a garden as Konstantin attempts his ambitious philosophical play and (very avant- garde) rips up the painted scenery. The greensward, chairs, parasols and nicely surly servants pushing a mower or morosely clipping shrubs relate nicely to the real family picnics out in the audience. Though one hopes that the characters’ troublesome, bored, self-obsessed angst and ennui do not…

Chekhov’s opening scenes – once the disastrous play is over – always risk the pre-revolutionary bourgeois ennui becoming – well, ennuyeux. But soon his deadly comedy pace quickens, as Janie Dee,vain I-am-an-actress diva mother of Matthew Tennyson’s frail thwarted Konstantin does her bouncing, preening, frightful poses, and her lover Trigorin (Alex Robertson, comedically vile) gets helplessly drunk with Lisa Diveney’s glum lovesick Masha, and leads Nina astray. Nina is given a sweet naivete by Sabrina Bartlett, though does not quite convince in her Ophelia dementia at the end. Colin Hoult is cruelly funny as whining Simon the schoolteacher (one of Chekhovs most malicious portraits), a majestically gloomy Ian Redford is old Peter, and Danny Webb as the doctor is granted his melancholy description of the pleasure of city crowds , a ” mass of souls” bringing a  sense of fellowship. Which is is one of the rare redemptive glimpses in this bleak, witty, knowing portait of a decaying society. (I always remember coming out of a rather dull Cherry Orchard and the woman behind observing, Yorkshire fashion , to her man that “Those people really had that Revolution coming!”)

But even before the majestic tragic dusk, underscored by a perhaps over-menacing musical soundscape, Matthew Dunster’s production is engaging all the way. Dee and Tennyson, mother and son, break your heart: struggling against their bond and their mutual resentment as he hurls rage at her “shallow, shitty plays” and she screams “You’re a failure, a nobody, nothing at all!”.

The free verbal adaptation by Torben Betts is slangy and vivid: overhead, the great slanted mirror lets us look down on them all like seagulls ourselves, and marvel and the struggle and absurdity of human life. And the servants, by the way, deploy the best sullen-serf body language I’ve ever seen: Fraser James as the “whingeing dullard” trying to make the damn farm pay is a gruff delight, and Lisa Palfrey’s pissed-off Paulina, eating the plums Irina can’t be bothered to take away, offers a tiny moment to cherish. And above them the trees rustle, and the night-birds in the distant zoo caw contempt. What fools we mortals be.

box office 0844 826 4242 to 11 july

rating four

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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