I recently took a risk and fulfilled a complete stranger to visit the Lyric, Hammersmith, to watch Chekhov’s The Seagull using a total stranger. After years of failing and trying for friends to visit the theatre with me I had given up since they either didn’t enjoy the theatre or did not like the very same plays. So when I saw an ad on NextDoor.com for neighbours to get in touch if they’d love to form a theatre-going group, I said I had been in.
My new companion Elizabeth was waiting for me outside The Lyric, in which a modernised version of The Seagull was dividing critics that mainly loved it when they hated it, they hated it. During the period we found that it had also divided opinion between me and Elizabeth because she ‘was not enjoying it at all’ and stated she would have left if I hadn’t been so clearly having a good time.
It’s certainly nothing like a traditional creation of a Chekhov play, that appears to be the main reason behind negative criticisms. The adaptation is by Simon Stephens and attracts it into the current day with very little to identify it as initially Russian. Short skirts, long Russian names cut to first name simply to sound contemporary, four-letter words and slang phrases like ‘what is he like?’ All create a distinct atmosphere to the angst we know and enjoy in this kind of play.
The Seagull is a drama about professional jealousy, writing and writers, and about the theater and acting, together with unrequited love incorporating a more universal component. Not one of those characters love somebody who loves them back, while the narcissistic Irina fails to treat her only son Konstantin with love as she could just manage to appreciate herself. The majority of her friends know she can’t tolerate compliments visiting anyone but her, and they humour her if she insists she can play a 15-year-old.
Lesley Sharp is superb in the role of Irina, mostly funny, sometimes bothersome, especially when she attempts to steal the attention from her own son when he presents his over-written experimental drama, and shockingly violent when she loses control and destroys him with clipping criticism about his total lack of talent in her eyes. Brian Vernel is equally striking as Konstantin, ambitious to be a playwright, but aware of his own failings and the stronger effect of the simplicity of his mother’s lover Boris’s writing. His girlfriend Nina can also be in thrall to the famous writer Boris, performed with Nicholas Gleaves. At one stage Konstantin stands at the front of the stage facing the audience although Nina tells him she enjoys Boris, not him, along with his whole reaction is displayed purely by facial expressions and an effort to hold back tears.
There was some uncomfortable bliss as Irina persuaded Boris to depart with her and go back to the city after he requested her permission for ‘just one night’ with Nina. From the first play she may convince him with some flattery, some begging, a hug or kiss and the question ‘You are coming, aren’t you?’ But this takes on a completely new double-meaning if she undoes the belt of his pants and provides him a very determined hand-job. If Lesley Sharp acts this out nicely, with the poignancy of desperation together with comedy, Nicholas Gleaves’ orgasm can be quite impressively realistic. As she wipes her hands using a tissue and passes one to him to clean himself down, her abuse of him is as symbolic as her kid’s too metaphorical plays.
Adelayo Adedayo as Nina bursts onto the stage with youth and energy at the start and is persuasive in her adulation of Boris, her perception that nothing could be better than the life of a writer. Though he attempts to disillusion her, explaining in a striking monologue how writing is like an addiction and how he is never living through encounters without jotting them down in a laptop to use, she stays faithful to her perception in art and is not frightened off by his idea for a story when he sees a seagull shot by Konstantin. He tells her he’ll write about a man who meets a girl who’s lived all her life by a lake, like Nina, and the way he breaks her like the seagull because he’s got the time and nothing better to do.
The creation did a great job in bringing out the comedy in the writing, with much more humor added by the superb comic performances. Lloyd Hutchinson as Leo has never been noted by the critics since he is not a major character, but he was possibly my favourite and I looked forward to all his anecdotes, all funny and beautifully told in his Northern Ireland accent while all of the other personalities completely ignored him. He was totally immersed in his own world and unforgettable.