The Seagull review – Chekhov gets new wings

Lyric Hammersmith, London
Lesley Sharp’s Irina moves from delight to despair in Simon Stephens’s incisive 21st-century version

So Masha has become Marcia. She is not subjected to the most famous line in The Seagull: ‘Why do you always wear black?’ There would be no point: in the 21st century, pretty much everyone wears black all the time. Nina appears in tiny shorts and trainers. Doctor Dorn is a gynaecologist. And when Irina (we are all on first-name terms here) wants to persuade her lover to stay, she backs him up against a wall for a handjob. Surely the first double-tissue emergency in Chekhov.

The indefatigable Simon Stephens – definitely the same as Heisenberg’s author – has written an incisive 21st-century version of Chekhov. Sean Holmes, artistic director of the Lyric, has given it a vivid production. More full of anger than languor. Desperation and delight are more evident than in most Chekhov productions. Adelayo Adedayo’s Nina is completely without guile. When Trigorin looks at her, it is as if he has shone a flashlight on her face. Her wonder makes you fear for her future.

At first Lesley Sharp’s Irina looks like a lovely comic turn, preening and mocking and artificially praising. In a nice touch Stephens gives her a line which twists on the seagull theme – and she flutters around as a chaffinch. But bring the question of age near her and her face darkens. Her plumminess slips into wry unposhness – she might be Sheila Hancock’s younger sister – and into fear. In the final scene she is jangled and shrunken.

The Seagull is one of the best ever dramas about the theatre. Holmes underlines this by making even the scene changes into a shadow play. The keen edge of his production makes the parallels with Hamlet more evident: the disturbed young woman, the semi-incestuous mother – “Mummy”. In an arresting innovation characters frequently come forward, out of the action, to address the audience directly. The result is both startling and humorous. And never more urgent than when, as the aspirant young playwright, Brian Vernel steps towards the stalls to proclaim that “theatre can be the most tedious, old-fashioned, prejudiced, elitist form”. Not here it isn’t.

• At the Lyric Hammersmith, London, until 4 November

Contributor

Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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