THE SEAGULL, Secret House at the Depot Theatre, 6-16 December 2017. Photography by Bob Seary; above - Deborah Galanos and Abe Mitchell; below Shan-Ree Tan and Charmaine Bingwa; below again - Jane Angharad and Abe Mitchell
Anthony Skuse is a director’s director and an actor’s director: one of those rare birds whose work is admired by peers as well as those who get to participate. And audiences appreciate his work too: on the last night of his adaptation and production of The Seagull, the theatre was full, despite minimal publicity or reviews. Why Skuse isn’t regularly tapped by the major companies is a mystery, but on the other hand, he does add immensely to the richness of Sydney’s independent sector. This Seagull is no exception.
Played with utmost simplicity, Chekhov’s tragi-comedy remains as elusive yet compelling as it ever can be in a good production. Imperceptibly condensed to an hour and 50 minutes, The Seagull begins in Sorin’s (Alan Faulkner) garden estate by the lake where his nephew Konstantin (James Smithers) is applying the finishing touches to his new play. It will be performed by Nina (Jane Angharad) an aspiring actress who lives nearby.
At this point the plot entwines, rather than thickens (nothing is thick in Chekhov’s world). Konstantin is in love with Nina, but Masha (Charmaine Bingwa), daughter of estate manager Shamrayev (Tony Goh), is in love with Konstantin, while local school teacher Medvedenko (Shan-Ree Tan) is in love with Masha. It’s all hopeless in a pre-revolutionary provincial Russia way. Ennui and thwarted ambition abound, while discontent floats in the air, much like the unseen seagulls.
Cue the arrival of Konstantin’s mother and Sorin’s sister, the famous but fading actress Arkadina (Deborah Galanos). She’s accompanied by her current lover, the successful writer Trigorin (Abe Mitchell) with whom Nina quickly becomes besotted. Adding a final stick of dynamite to the already combustible mix, Shamrayev’s wife Polina (Leilani Loau) is having an affair with family friend Dr Dorn (Paul Armstrong). That there will be tears, or worse, before bedtime is never in any doubt.
A fascinating thing about Chekhov is that no matter how many times you see a play, there’s always another facet, a different take, a fresh revelation or interpretation. So it is with this Seagull and it lies in the apparent ease with which the actors assume their roles. And the casting of Deborah Galanos as Arkadina.
Arkadina must be the match that lights the fuse that explodes the flimsy world of her family and their friends. She is a tumultuous yet not malign presence. She is knowing and heedless, fragile and mighty; approaching the hill but not over it, and a boldly sexual presence. Hell on wheels, really. And Deborah Galanos delivers it all in spades with wicked comic timing.
All the women fulfil the requirement of varied and vivid performance presence: Charmaine Bingwa’s ill-concealed vexation at Medvedenko’s calf eyes is clear in her young woman’s snarky petulance. At the other end of age’s discontent is Polina, the archetypal provincial matron whose life is a series of disappointments. Nevertheless she’s taken it in hand, along with the good doctor, and as portrayed by Leilani Loau, is a woman many will recognise and laugh with, when not gnashing teeth.
Young Nina’s place in this enervated world is as essential as Arkadina’s smouldering world-weariness. Jane Angharad – her ancestral Welsh accent bringing an unexpected sweetness to the hopeful actress – is a golden child in the opening scenes. She earnestly recites Konstantin’s turgid lines with naive intensity. It makes her dispiriting career arc, later in the play, a particularly distressing one.
And the men are as thoughtful, able and well-cast as the women. In the teacher Medvedenko, Shan-Ree Tan has found a divertingly dull chap who means so well you want to whack him with a blackboard duster. Paul Armstrong’s Dr Dorn is probably a quack but he’s charming and a credible solace for Masha – desperate for some sparkle to relieve her life with the stolid son of the soil aka Tony Goh’s Shamrayev.
As the smugly intellectual author Trigorin, Abe Mitchell is rakish, confident and a minor literary talent. It seems reasonable to imagine his oeuvre will not survive him although his hubba hubba quotient is high. In contrast, Alan Faulkner’s ageing, ailing Sorin is as decently substantial as Trigorin is not; that Sorin cares for his nephew and wayward sister is plainly tender.
Konstantin, on the other hand, cares for little but his art – and Nina a distant second. James Smithers gives him all the ardour and blind ego of The Artist as well as the impulsiveness that sees him fail to shoot himself (giving Arkadina the chance to be solicitous with a bandage), then later succeeding in shooting a passing seagull. The symbolism of the taxidermed bird is, of course, lost on the symbolist.
A somewhat moth-eaten stuffed seagull is a sad yet comical emblem of the residents of Sorin’s estate. Even while flitting about they are going nowhere. Trigorin follows Arkadina back to Moscow after her droll yet harshly realistic “seduction”; Nina follows her dream – and Trigorin – and her fate is simply harshly realistic.
They all come and go to the garden which is a sunken pit of black muck in which very little could grow, certainly not art or happiness (design: Kyle Jonsson). It’s relieved only by an old partner’s desk – Konstantin’s stage and everything else in the house – and a half-mast, makeshift curtain. The space is backed by two walls of warped mirror panels – the lake – which reflect and distort all in Liam O’Keefe’s lighting and Ella Butler’s costumes – both equally simple and effective.
It’s impossible to stay aloof from these people and their sadly comical lives. They’re all too real and too pitiable and given fresh new life in this production; Chekhov would have approved.