Pushkin House, London – until 29 October 2017
What extraordinary actors the Russians produce and what a revelation is this newly filmed version by Moscow’s Satirikon Theatre uncomfortable, disturbing, unsettling though it also is. As far removed from British style Chekhov as it’s possible to be, director Yury Butusov’s The Seagull whilst throwing all convention to the four winds manages to retain and expand on the play’s essential exploration of creativity, literature, theatre, love, despair and hope.
Subversive, angry, anarchic, one of its most exciting aspects is the sheer eclecticism of its director who also appears like a demented rock n’ roll groupie, pounding the stage at the end of each act. Part showman, part madman, part scene-shifter (in many senses of the word), Butusov steals extravagantly and successfully from all manner of influences – European and American as well as intrinsically Russian – that range through Pina Bausch, surrealism, grand guignol to Kantor and absurdism.
At all times, the stage is livid with emotion as each character appears any moment to be on the brink of full mental breakdown, so extreme the passion and emotion expressed. There’s no holding back here, no whimsy; all sentimentality has been expunged, in a show that lasting nearly four hours demands as much from its audience as its extraordinary cast of performers.
© Ekaterina Tsvetkova, preparing the scene, Act 4, Marina Drovosekova (wonderful `dancing girl’) and Mariana Spivak (Masha)
This is a production that Konstantin, Chekhov’s young rebel and would-be writer/director, might have yearned for, rooted in remodelling and recreating new theatre and the antithesis of everything Konstantin’s mother, Arkadina, a famous actress and the paradigm of conventional, mainstream and bourgeois theatre, stands for. But Konstantin is also her son and desperate for her love, Therein lies the sadness and later terrible drama.
Along with the music of what sounds Kurt Weill-like one minute, French chanteuse the next, then punk, you can also imagine Pussy Riot relating to Butusov’s approach.
Angry, rebellious, Butusov’s Chekhovian women are raucous, sensuous, furiously expressive, the men sad, glassy-eyed, shambling and despairing. Timofey Tribuntcev’s Konstantin, a small, bright-eyed Woody Allen lookalike, exudes helplessness and excitement in equal measure. His Nina, Agrippina Steklova, though, is no wilting flower but with her mass of Titian, pre-Raphaelite hair a voluptuary, young at heart but mature, full-bloodied.
© Ekaterina Tsvetkova, Agrippina Steklova as Nina, Timofey Tribuntcev as Konstantin enjoying brief joy and hope before Konstantin’s play…
If British productions have tended to emphasise innocence destroyed, and the carelessness and parasitical nature of the writer in the character of Trigorin, Arkadina’s lover, here it comes masked in a kind of complicity. Denis Sukhanov’s Trigorin is anything but charismatic. He plays him with a careful dullness that breaks out into self-hating in the famous speech about the shallowness of fame and being a celebrity novelist.
Butusov has remarked that for these characters, theatre is everything. And whilst Chekhov’s original is recognisably still there, it is the violence, the passion and ultimately the manner of Butusov’s re-envisioned Chekhov that sweeps all before it.
© Ekaterina Tsvetkova, Denis Sukhanov as Trigorin, Mariana Spivak as unhappy Masha and symbols of the baby she has no time for, married to a dull schoolteacher she hates and in love with Konstantin…
In one startlingly distressing scene, Konstantin, injured by a failed suicide attempt, is having his bandage dressed by his mother.
In British productions and in Sean Holmes’ recent Lyric Hammersmith version, it is a scene of pathos – the neglectful mother finally giving her son the attention he so craves.
Simon Stephens and Holmes with Lesley Sharp succeeded in finding its painful comedy as well as its sadness.
But Butusov does something ten times more daring and pointed.
Konstantin enters with his head swathed in coiled rope as if caught in the swathes of mother love on the one hand or some terrible victim of torture on the other.
Indeed the whole scene is set in something akin to a white tiled bathhouse or asylum – a scene one imagines where terrible things might previously have been enacted. Irina proceeds to dunk her son’s head several times in a brass bucket, splashing his face clean of blood before he too holds her head underwater.
The scene is steeped in Freudian-oedipal undertones and the whole production, shot mainly in close-up, could be said to be a psycho-analyst’s dream, filled as it is with ritual, the extremes of emotion and wreathed in irony.
Giving a new meaning to `in-yer-face’, `immersive’ theatre – I wish we had had less of the close-ups and more long shots – it’s hard to imagine a British production being able to match either the power and fury of Butusov’s vision or the physical emotion of its amazing actors.
I have to confess, towards the end, I was longing for just a little respite, for Butusov to just let the play, the words settle.
And strangely, as we approached the denouement with Nina’s terrible `reconciliation’ with Konstantin – pre-announced in three different versions by changing performers, each one more heightened than the previous one – Tribuntcev and Steklova’s meeting was full of quiet melancholy despite Steklova’s face being a mask of macabre, ghoulish distortion.
© Ekaterina Tsvetkova, Agrippina Steklova as Nina at the finale with the seagull. The production dedicated to a former actress who played Nina, Valentina Karavaeva
Can new forms only be created by destruction, the production seems to be saying and through disastrous outcomes? What’s certain is that any Seagull after this is going to appear a poor shadow.
One additional thought that this production brilliantly illuminates – as indeed did Sean Holmes’ Lyric Hammersmith production.
As we enter perilous times for the planet with climate change, Konstantin’s opening, abstract, intensely bleak vision of a dead world where nothing lives is no longer played for laughs as it was just a couple of decades ago. Now it seems extraordinarily prophetic – and is given due respect as such.
Poignantly, the production – which was only filmed three months ago – is dedicated to the memory of Valentina Ivanovna Karavaeva (1921-1998) who performed Nina memorably on stage but whose career was cut short by a terrible car accident. She died in poverty, beside apparently a small model of a seagull she had made of wire, paper and feathers.