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The Seagull

at the Walter Kerr Theatre

The Seagull for all its familiarity, I had never seen it before the other night. Thomas Pasatieri's operatic adaptation, yes. Regina Taylor's adaptation, set in Gullah territory, yes. I had read the play, of course in the more-or-less way of required reading that's uncongenial at the time. I'm not a fan of Chekhov. I think that his plays are acutely specific to the confected bourgeoisie of Imperial Russia, and also that they are in many ways, happily, quite dated. The character of Madame Arkadina, for example. Oh, I'm sure that there are plenty of Arkadinas right here in Manhattan; but that's just it: they're not extraordinary anymore, and their monstrousness is correspondingly circumscribed.

I went to see The Seagull because Kristin Scott Thomas was going to star in it on Broadway, that's why. I savored the lozenge of ironic parallelism: legions of imaginary audiences (in the world of Chekhov's play) must after all have sat through dozens of imaginary second-rate plays simply to see the imaginary Arkadina. Not that I regard Chekhov as at all second-rate. No especially not after seeing this Broadway production. I may not be a fan, but that's a matter of speaking generally. Specifically, a couple of nights ago, it so happened that I was unusually receptive to what's strong about his theatre, because I had just re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, a novel in which farce, melodrama, and hopelessness all vie in narrative competition. Irina Nikolaevna (Arkadina's proper name) is an unholy blending of Dostoevsky's viragos, Varvara Petrovna and Yulia Mikhailovna. She combines the obsessive self-regard of the first with the reckless ambition of the second as perhaps any great diva must.

And Ms one wants to say, Madame Scott Thomas: what kind of diva is she? On the basis of the Seagull performance alone, I should say that she is the kind of diva who appears as such only offstage, if at all. Onstage, she is an anti-diva. She does nothing to narrow the play's broad perspectives, or to draw its many troubled threads to herself. There are several scenes the leave-taking at the end of Act III comes to mind* when her insistence on remaining at the periphery of the proceedings is terrifying: Ms Scott Thomas acts like a person who can't wait to be offstage, which is of course Arkadina's attitude toward her brother's country house. But you do notice her performance. To say that she is an anti-diva is, after all, to imply that hers is a presence that can't be overlooked.

Helplessness is the key to her Arkadina's character. This lady is no narcissist; nor is she a fool who has fallen for her own legend. This Arkadina is aware at every step of the precariousness of her position. As an ageing actress, how can she not viscerally dread the drying out of applause, whether it come from the audience or from her lover? Her lover, Trigorin, does not actually applaud. Peter Sarsgaard gives us a Trigorin about whose modesty there is nothing false when he says of himself,

I have no will of my own. ... I've never had a will of my own. Sluggish, flabby, always submissive how can any woman like that sort of thing? Take me, carry me off, but don't let me ever move a step away from you ...

At the same time, however, he is a well-set-up younger man, and very famous to boot. He makes her part of a star couple. But just because she is helpless does not make Arkadina sympathetic. For she is helpless only vis--vis her career. If she could give up her career, and spend some of her dressmaker money on her son, helping to launch him in an artistic world that is bound to supersede her own eventually, she would not be helpless at all. This Arkadina is not in the least bit helpless when it comes to continuing to pursue her chancy celebrity.

Not being a diva herself allows Ms Scott Thomas to play an actress in diva mode. Arkadina's longing to get away at the end of the third act is explained by the contortions that she must strike in the middle of it, first with her son and then with Trigorin. Konstantin Gavrilovich describes his mother, before we even see her, in terms that she (again) helplessly demonstrates in the course of the play.

You see, my mother doesn't love me. And why should she indeed? She wants to live, to have love affairs, to wear light-coloured blouses, and here am I, twenty five years old already. I'm always reminding her that she isn't young any longer. When I'm not about she's thirty-two, but when I'm with her, she's forty-three, and she hates me for it. Moreover, she knows that I have no use for the theatre. She loves the theatre, she imagines that she's serving humanity, whereas in my opinion the theatre of today is in a rut, and full of prejudices and conventions."

Just a bit before this, he trenchantly observes that "she's tight-fisted, too. She has seventy thousand in the bank, in Odessa that I know for certain. But you try to borrow money from her, and she'll just burst into tears." So: when Arkadina is asked for money, and she does burst into tears, we see that Chekhov was not wrong to call his play a comedy. Konstantin's first-act speech is a gun loaded with laughs instead of bullets.

With Konstantin and Trigorin, in the third act, Arkadina has to dig into her bag of tricks, her feminine wiles, her fearlessness of self-abasement. But if her behavior is over the top, that is only for the audience, for any third persons who might be standing round while she does her damnedest to hold onto these men to her son on her own terms, and to Trigorin on any terms at all.** A diva playing Arkadina would never be able to divest herself of the aura of stainless-steel divinity that preserves stage goddesses from awkward interactions.

I laughed a great deal watching these tense scenes, because they put me in mind of the impression that the performance would have had upon Kathleen (who was sitting right next to me) had she seen it when she was about ten or eleven. Watching Kristin Scott Thomas dance the Higher Hootchie-Kootch was about as much fun as watching Kathleen's sweeping, swooping imitation would have have been. It's as close as I'll ever get to seeing it! There was a congruence between my wife's play-acting, as I imagined it, and Arkadina's play-acting, as I watched it, that made for a moment of theatre that I shall never forget. Here was an Arkadina whom one could imagine making fun of herself.

Mr Sarsgaard's Trigorin, calm and complacent, but wearing disgust like a woodsy eau de cologne, seems at times to be almost conscious of the Oedipal dimensions of his attachment to Arkadina. Although he has renounced an interest in everything but his comfort, he is condemned by some sort of attentive compulsion to collect "literary" phrases. The actor made it easy that Nina might throw herself at such a man whose life she would light with her own energy. Carey Mulligan's Nina was incandescent in every scene, shining so brightly that I couldn't believe I'd never heard of her. My lapse! Art Malik is immensely satisfying as Dorn, the worldly doctor who no longer even dreams of being effective. (And why should he bother? Women have thrown themselves at him for his entire life.)  I did not take to Mackenzie Crook's Konstantin; the actor struck me as too gaunt and austere to be Arkadina's twenty-five year-old son. Her fifteen year-old son, perhaps. There was something not quite grown-up about Mr Crook's Konstantin, something that made his famous calls for "new forms" petulant rather than heroic. I'd have liked Arkadina to face a greater challenge. When I heard that Mr Sarsgaard was in the production, I thought he'd be playing Konstantin now that would have been something! Because, in the end, Konstantin is worth preserving, and Trigorin is not. Arkadina's loss ought to be felt to be immense.

For those who hadn't just read Dostoevsky, Peter Wright's Sorin provided a sturdy barometer, measuring to a minute the atmosphere of pointlessness that seems to have pervaded the Tsar's civil service, and, closer to home, perhaps, driven his sister to gamble on the highly existential life of an actress. Sorin, barely fifty, still wants to "live." Mr Wright's unselfconscious bluster was a perfect foil to Ms Scott Thomas's interstellar distance from puerile dissatisfactions. If her brother wants to live, to find out what it's like, Arkadina wants to go on living, never to stop living. The siblings are equally insatiable.

Zoe Kazan (Masha), Pearce Quigley (Medvedenko), Ann Dowd (Polina), Julian Gamble (Shamrayev), and Christopher Patrick Nolan (Yakov) were first-rate at roles that can't, to my view, be saved for today's stage; it is difficult to see their parts as anything but rather extravagant color, effects aimed at "real life." There are four principal roles in The Seagull, and Sorin suffices unto himself as a supporting cast. The rest is busyness.

The other moment that I won't forget is the look of Ms Scott Thomas's head, strained against the worst, sitting at the rear wall in Act III. How small and defenceless she looked.

* The Royal Court production fuses the plays four acts into two, with one interval.

** My edition of The Seagull calls for Arkadina to get down on her knees to Trigorin. Ms Scott Thomas prostrated herself completely, like an ordinand. It was very funny.

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