first night

The Seagull

Hetty Hodgson is transported to 19th-century Russia with Fortnight Theatre.

Fortnight Theatre’s decision to stage one of Chekhov’s best and most famous plays in just two weeks is a huge undertaking. The Seagull offers a reflection on life in Russia at the end of the 19th century and portrays a group of characters’ dissatisfaction and discontent through displaying their artistic and romantic conflicts. Despite a few flaws, this production—with its character depth and its ability to simultaneously create moments of humour and tragedy—was successful.

Firstly, Director Wesley Milligan must be commended for some of his directorial decisions. His choice to stage this production in its original context of the 19th century meant that it largely stuck true to the original play, thus effectively bringing out its main themes. Through use of carefully chosen set, props and costumes, as well as paying close attention to the way in which each character spoke and how each character held themselves, we were well and truly transported to the time period of the piece. Every cast member showed great depth to their characters, which illustrates how effective Milligan’s ‘character work’ (as mentioned in his Director’s Note) really was.

Yet the play was not always entirely smooth in its staging. Although big scene changes are inevitable with this play, not helped by the fact that The Assembly Rooms does not always facilitate these, scene changes were often clumsy, anti-climatic and drew the audience’s concentration away from the world of the play. Perhaps a suggestion would be to continue with the use of the music during these scene changes. Nonetheless, I was impressed by the staging in the first half of the play. The gorgeously painted flats really created the atmosphere of being by the river and the frame used for the staging was both effective and aesthetically pleasing. The decision to split the stage into a higher and lower level could have been interestingly worked but unfortunately it became underused and awkward, and ultimately resulted in people queuing to move upstage and downstage as they waited their turn to use the steps. On top of this, it was never quite clear whether downstage was a different room to upstage, as at times characters acted as if they could not be heard by those on the other half of the stage, but at other times there were full conversations over the split—this certainly needed more clarification. I would suggest that if this split staging is to be used, it should be done so for a clear and legitimate purpose and then maintained throughout, as all it worked for was distancing the audience from the action on stage throughout most the play. That said, this did not overshadow what Milligan should really be praised for. His emphasis on the humorous rather than simply the tragic aspects of the play made the production all the more compelling and emphasised aspects of the play that can all-too-often be forgotten.

The nature of the play is very much ensemble based and the cast as a whole managed to keep the energy high for its duration through constantly engaging with their characters. Despite the fact that there were moments when characters appeared uncertain of what they were doing, for example at the end of Nina’s performance in the first act, where the actors seemed unsure as to whether they were meant to be listening to Madame Arkadina or talking to each other, all in all the acting quality was very impressive. A standout performance came from Theo Holt-Bailey, who should be praised for his touching depiction of Constantin Treplef. Holt-Bailey’s youthful eagerness was compelling at the beginning of the play and his growing pain was convincing, culminating in the moment whereby he traumatically ripped up all the letters from Nina in absolute distress, which was heartbreaking. Although Millie Blair presented an effective portrayal of the youthful Nina, at times she appeared slightly forced, which didn’t seem fitting for the naturalistic style of the play. Above all, Sarah Cameron’s performance of Madame Arkadina was infallible. Cameron’s entrance onto the stage immediately raised the energy of the performance. She genuinely seemed to be enjoying herself, and her presence was such that it was hard to draw your eyes away from her as she graced the stage. Whether it was her hilariously snobbish shunning of Nina’s performance as ‘terrible, terrible, terrible’, her tender treatment of her son’s wound or her devastating fall to Trigorin’s feet in an attempt to get him to love her, Cameron’s performance was outstanding throughout.

This production is undoubtedly an impressive feat for Fortnight Theatre Company, who have, on the whole, put forward a convincing portrayal of one of Chekhov’s best works. It is certainly an enjoyable break from the mounting essay deadlines, so if you want to give yourself some well-deserved summative respite, take a trip down to The Assembly Rooms to watch The Seagull over the next couple of days.

2 December 2016

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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