Thoughts: The Seagull
Almost a month ago, I travelled to Sydney to see The Seagull at Belvoir. I absolutely intended to write a review of the show; in many ways I wish I had. But somewhere in between being caught up in the excitement that was a weekend in Sydney, and the overwhelm I felt from the production, every time I sat down to write something it felt like an impossible task.
Had it been in Adelaide (a small town, with fewer critical voices, and where most of my readers are) I’m sure I would have found a way to say what I could. It being in Sydney both gave myself a remove from the need to write about the production, and reviewers whom I keenly agree with: I feel James Waites in particular had a very similar experience as me, and wrote about it more eloquently than I could have.
But this week a friend asked me if I would describe Benedict Andrew’s script as a new Australian work. Saying no, he pressed me for a more detailed answer. Here was my response to him, mixed in with some of the thoughts I’ve scribed down over the past month whenever I’ve given this write-up a try:
To define Benedict Andrews’ The Seagull as a new Australian text or not inherently hinges on your definition of what exactly is a new Australian text, which to me implies a uniqueness of character, a separation of itself from works which came before it. If Andrews had used Chekhov’s script as a launching point to craft an original work, then perhaps my answer would be different. But for me, a true strength of the work was that Andrews was so faithful to the original as to truly highlight the timelessness and universality of themes on youth, art, country towns, and, with particular significance to me, of writing.
What Andrews did with Chekhov’s text is to set it in an inherently, unabashedly and unashamedly Australian setting. I, admittedly, don’t have an overly large knowledge of Chekhov, but it felt so honest and faithful to Chekhov I can’t believe it was anything but. He brought forth a contemporary context and an Australian vernacular to the work, but within this it still felt like a translation rather than an adaptation: he was just translating more than the language, he was also translating years and countries and context.
In saying this, though, Andrews remained faithful even to the point of using Russian names and place names. Was it new, was it contemporary, was it Australian? Undoubtedly. But was it old, was it a classic, was it Russian? Equally so. And so I couldn’t classify it as a new Australian text. A new Australian work, yes, but not on a textual level.
(As an aside, I think that the works of Chekhov and Ibsen could prove to survive within English language theatre better than Shakespeare, because they won’t find themselves encumbered by language. The freedom modern playwrights and directors have with works which aren’t written in our native tongue gives us a really powerful medium to attach a modernity (and Australianness, or Britishness, or what have you) to highlight the issues and themes of the works in what can be a truly powerful medium.)
But on to seeing the production: Sitting at my computer desperately pressing refresh until tickets came on sale didn’t stop us getting seats in the back corner of the theatre. Ralph Myer’s set obstructed much of our view when the actors were inside the fibro house. Maybe I am being more forgiving because I had spent so much money and effort to get myself to Sydney (a much greater undertaking than the fifteen minutes I’m away from most theatres in Adelaide), but even through this obstruction I loved the play. Even as I sat at the same level as the lighting rig, as I saw the theatrical tricks, as I watched but couldn’t see everything that was going on, as I looked over rows of heads: I felt like I was looking in on a private event. There was an excitement I felt from this near guilt of watching in on an event I wasn’t invited to. The ensemble was so fantastic, so wonderfully and consistently present that it almost didn’t feel like a piece of theatre at all.
While Judy Davis was undeniably the star (and a lot of the reason I made the trip), every single cast member was at her level: for any cast to be as strong as this, let alone one with a cast of twelve, is marvelous. One of the things I have loved in reading reviews and thoughts of this production was which character different people put at the centre of their experience. For mine, Emily Barclay’s Marsha was the most compelling, but this was/is an opinion constantly changing.
As someone who has only read about Andrews’ work but hasn’t, to my memory (it is entirely possible I did when at school), seen any, it was interesting to see a piece which was said to be so referential to his own work. There were parts I recognised because they were well talked about in previous productions. I suppose there were many more that I didn’t. And isn’t that one of the great things about theatre? The hyper-locality of it. Of course, it’s often one of the worst, but I think that’s one of the great qualities of it: you do have to be there.
I came away from The Seagull feeling like I had seen an amazing piece of work by Andrews. I devoured his text, and re-read it from the program the next day, flipping it open several times since then. I loved the balance he brought between naturalism and theatricality. But I also felt like I had truly understood and appreciated Chekhov, in a way that maybe almost feels I never need see Chekhov again: I’ve seen it done right. I’ve appreciated it in a modern context: the way his original audience would have (although, with the first presentation of The Seagull being one of the most notorious flops ever, perhaps not…)
Of course, since I’ve seen this production, I’ve seen The Cherry Orchard broadcast by the National Theatre, and this week I will see the State Theatre Company’s production of The Three Sisters. I will keep going back to the theatre, I will see more Chekhov: it’s what I do. But if I couldn’t? That would be okay, too.
Belvoir presents The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, in a version by Benedict Andrews. Directed by Benedict Andrews, set design by Ralph Myers, costume design by Dale Ferguson, lighting design by Damien Cooper, composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory. With Emily Barclay, Billie Brown, Gareth Davies, Judy Davis, Maeve Dermody, Mel Dyer, John Gaden, Anita Hegh, Terry Serio, Thomas Unger, David Whenham, and Dylan Young. At Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney. Season closed.