|Maeve Dermody in The Segull. Photo Heidrun Lohr
The man responsible for creating the Method, Stanislavsky, once said that when encountering Chekhov’s plays for the first time you might think, “This is good, but… it’s nothing special, nothing to stun you with admiration”. He was of course talking about the surface of them. Because on the surface they are very ordinary; not much plot, nothing really “happens”, just a lot of people killing time and gasbagging away. But beneath this flimsy façade there’s subtext bubbling away – buckets of it. Or as Stanislavsky puts it, it’s in the recalling that the full impact hits you. “You recollect some phrases and scenes, you feel you want to think about them more, think about them longer… then you realise the depths hidden under the surface.”
And yet there’s more to it than that – of course. The Seagull is also a play about plays and it’s this self-reflexive nature that has Andrews enthralled. He couldn’t have made a better choice than to put Judy Davis smack bang in the middle of it as the fading actress Irena Nikolayevna, whose ego is hungry to hold on to the glory days, that is if he wanted to stir up questions about the “old guard” and when they are going to get off the stage and give the kids the floor. With so much of the theatre in this country still being made for Boomer audiences and by people well past their prime, it’s easy to see his frustration. Of course at Belvoir the guard is changing, too, and The Seagullembodies that in the form of Konstantin (Dylan Young), Irena’s passionate young aspiring playwright son who is bursting at the seams to get out there and try to produce something much better, more challenging and interesting than anything she’s ever done (new artistic director Ralph Myers, anyone?).
All Belvoir parallels aside, The Seagull is a much broader meditation on art and life. It’s all there in the big bold neon stage lights “Real Life” (designed by Ralph Myers). It seeks to ask, can we represent life truthfully in art, and indeed, what is truth anyway, when what is real for one is a lie to another?
At the heart of The Seagull is also this understanding that we are all constantly moving into our new forms – like it or not! The only other alternative is to be trapped in the birthing process and the result of that can mean only one thing, death.
Of course it’s a great cast: Judy Davis, David Wenham, Bille Brown, John Gaden, Anita Hegh, Emily Barclay, but as it’s such a big ensemble play they don’t get to flex their individual muscle as much as the audience may like. They get moments.
When Barclay mooches onto the stage draped in chiffon as Masha and squats to pull a bucket bong, you just know that this is not going to be your usual Upstairs fare. She’s the depressive of the play and yet her performance is a firecracker. Anyone who saw her in the film Suburban Mayhem will remember she does bogan to a tee, but here she’s that and oh so much more as she slurps cornflakes out of a bowl drowned in vodka heartbroken overKonstantin, who ignores her. When she’s on stage she’s riveting.
More disappointing are the roles for Wenham (whose Trigorin is so self-obsessed that there’s very little to observe on the surface of things) and for Davis, in particular, with this clever casting ploy somewhat back-firing. Largely it’s because Davis is so perfect for the role of Irena that she has the appearance of simply drifting through the action. She just “is” the version of herself that we all want her to be: predictably spoilt, self indulgent, trying to fan the flames of a youth that’s gone out with a hiss. Although, there is a moment that’s a revelation, dragging us back into “the real”. When Davis pulls the skin back on her face to indicate the price of fame and the role we, the audience, have played in it – the ridicule, the insecurity and the surgery that results from being held too long under the microscope – we are in awe!
Billie Brown is warm and captivating as the lothario doctor Dorn; John Gaden is witty and wry as Irena’s brotherSorin; Maeve Dermody is fragile and doomed as the aspiring young actress who sucks up men’s hearts like a vacuum cleaner; and Dylan Young is all intense angst and impotent rage as the neglected Konstantin, whose mother is so consumed with loving herself that she just has time to barely notice him.
With the pared back set, all the bells and whistles are in the casting – and in those moments. Andrews’ “montage” moment as the ash falls from the sky and the actors stay stuck as time passes is one that works brilliantly. It’s in times like these that we recognise that there’s something of each one of these characters in all of us. They become vessels for our own memories of life’s mistakes, heartbreaks and betrayals. We are each and every one of them. We are The Seagull…
Directed by Benedict Andrews
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
This review first appeared on Australian Stage June 2011