The Seagull

October 4, 2018
Irina Arkadina holds court in 'The Seagull'

Although Anton Chekhov’s plays were considered radically naturalistic when first performed, they feel like period pieces today. The saving grace is that the period to which they belong was one of the most fertile in world literature, with Chekhov’s brief span of 44 years intersecting with the lives of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Leskov and Bunin, to name only a few of his peers.

The Seagull was booed at its first staging in 1896 but Stanislavsky brought it back two years later in a version that stands as a landmark in the theatre. Over four acts the action never moves from a country estate outside of Moscow, where the elderly Piotr Sorin (Brian Dennehy) a retired civil servant, plays host to a cast of friends and relatives caught up in a tangled web of love intrigues, betrayals and ironic banter.

The play has been filmed several times, most notably by Sidney Lumet in 1968, with James Mason, Simone Signoret, Vanessa Redgrave and David Warner in the lead roles. It’s worth venturing a comparison between these two American renditions separated by half a century.

Michael Mayer’s new production of The Seagull doesn’t break any fresh ground. It’s an understated treatment of Chekhov’s text in which the symbolism of the seagull gets less traction than it does in the original: a symbol of freedom brought down by an unhappy love affair. At only 98 minutes the new film is considerably shorter than its predecessor, which clocked in at 141 minutes.

Such compression will offend purists, but to playwright, Stephen Karam, who wrote the screenplay, it must have seemed as if there were many verbose passages in the play that needed to stripped way. To my surprise I find myself in agreement – at least in cinematic terms. By cutting back the filmmakers have made the story flow more quickly. What is lost is that sense of ennui which permeates Russian literature of the late 19th century.

In the works of Chekhov and Turgenev there are many so-called ‘superfluous men’ – characters who who view their lives as worthless and devoid of meaning. It’s that end-of-an-era feeling when one way of life is in its death throes and another is yet to be born. Take away the boredom, melancholy and frustration, and you have a more fluent movie but a less faithful representation of the writer’s world.

In Mayer’s version, the show-stealer is Annette Bening in the role of Irina Arkadina, a famous actress who contrives to cope with the idea of aging by remainly as egocentric and petulant as a child. Her younger lover, the novelist, Boris Trigorin, is played capably by Corey Stoll.

In Chekhov’s play, Irina was in her early 40s, while Boris was still in his 30s. Lumet chose to ignore this, casting James Mason at the age of 59. Corey Stoll is only 42, which is a lot closer to the mark, but Mason had such screen presence his performance is hard to forget. When one compares Simone Signoret, who was 47 when Lumet’s film was made, with Annette Bening, who is 60, Bening actually comes across as the more youthful personality.

As for the younger characters, in 1968 David Warner played Irina’s son, Konstantin, as a version of Hamlet, the on-stage role for which he had become famous three years earlier. Billy Howle’s Konstantin in the new version is suitably histrionic but less convincing. As for Nina, Konstantin’s love-objet who forms a treacherous attachment with Boris, it’s hard to choose between Vanessa Redgrave and Saoirse Ronan. Although the younger Ronan feels more suitable for the part she doesn’t project the same limpid purity as Redgrave.

The trick with all these Chekhovian characters is to capture the right degree of self-consciousness. Played one way a character may seem naïve or even hysterical, a slave to their emotions. But a great actor can inject a knowingness into such a role, suggesting that he or she is perfectly aware of their own shortcomings, but unable to resist. Or perhaps – as this is a play about actors, writers and literary wannabees – we may see everyone as playing a role within a role. This is certainly the case with Masha (Elisabeth Moss in the Mayer version), who nurtures an image of herself as a tragic, lovelorn figure, because of an unrequited passion for Konstantin.

This quality of self-consciousness is arguably Chekhov’s most important contribution to the theatre. One sees his lingering influence in every psychological drama that has followed. A director such as Woody Allen is almost parodic in his debt to Chekhov, with so many of his characters discoursing about the nature of art and getting involved in inappropriate love affairs. Almost every film has a Boris Trigorin type – the fascinating older man who proves irresistable to a young woman.

For actors, The Seagull offers a chance to show what they can do, which must be an unalloyed pleasure at a time when those films that soar highest at the box office (and pay the biggest salaries) have amazing special effects but woeful dialogue. Without a decent script the art of acting becomes a mere charade. Chekhov’s characters may drone on and on, but by the end of the story we feel that we know them in all their deceits and contradictions; in their fears, regrets and hidden despair.

The Seagull
Directed by Michael Mayer
Written by Stephen Karam, after a play by Anton Chekhov
Starring Annette Bening, Corey Stoll, Billy Howle, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy, Michael Zegen, Mare Winnigham, Jon Tenney, Glenn Fleshler
USA, rated M, 98 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 October, 2018