Theater Review – The Seagull – Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith London

I recently took a risk and met a total stranger to go to the Lyric, Hammersmith, to see Chekhov’s The Seagull with a total stranger. After years of trying and failing to get friends to go to the theater with me I had given up as they either didn’t like the theater or didn’t like the same plays. So when I saw an advert on for neighbors to get in touch if they’d like to form a theater-going group, I said I was in.

My new companion Elizabeth was waiting for me outside The Lyric, where a modernized version of The Seagull was dividing critics who mainly loved it but if they hated it, they really hated it. During the interval we discovered that it had also divided opinion between me and Elizabeth as she ‘was not enjoying it at all’ and said she would have left if I hadn’t been so clearly having a good time.

It’s certainly nothing like a traditional production of a Chekhov play, which seems to be the main reason for negative criticisms. The adaptation is by Simon Stephens and brings it to the present day with very little to identify it as originally Russian. Short skirts, long Russian names cut to first name only to contemporary sound, four-letter words and slang phrases like ‘what is he like?’ all create a different atmosphere to the angst we know and love in this kind of play.

The Seagull is a play about professional jealousy, writers and writing, and also about the theater and acting, with unrequited love adding a more universal element. None of the characters love somebody who loves them back, while the narcissistic Irina fails to treat her only son Konstantin with love as she can only manage to love herself. His adulthood makes it harder for her to pretend she’s still young, while his girlfriend Nina is an up-and-coming actor, making her more desperate to prove she isn’t the ‘old has-been’ the resident farmer Leo accuses her of being in a rare honest outburst. Most of her friends know she can’t bear compliments going to anyone but her, and they humor her even when she insists she could play a 15-year-old.

Lesley Sharp is superb in the role of Irina, mostly funny, sometimes irritating, especially when she tries to steal the attention from her own son when he presents his over-written experimental play, and shockingly abusive when she loses control and destroys him with cutting criticism about his total lack of talent in her eyes. Brian Vernel is equally striking as Konstantin, ambitious to be a playwright, but aware of his own failings and the stronger effect of the simplicity of his mother’s lover Boris’s writing. His girlfriend Nina is also in thrall to the famous writer Boris, played by Nicholas Gleaves. At one point Konstantin stands at the front of the stage facing the audience while Nina tells him she loves Boris, not him, and his whole reaction is shown purely by facial expressions and an attempt to hold back tears.

There was some uneasy laughter as Irina persuaded Boris to leave with her and go back to the city after he asked her permission for ‘just one night’ with Nina. In the original play she may persuade him with some flattery, some begging, a hug or kiss and the question ‘You are coming, aren’t you?’ but this takes on a whole new double-meaning when she undoes the belt of his trousers and gives him a very determined hand-job. If Lesley Sharp acts this out well, with the poignancy of desperation combined with comedy, Nicholas Gleaves’ orgasm is also quite impressively realistic. As she wipes her hands with a tissue and passes one to him to clean himself down, her manipulation of him is as symbolic as her son’s overly metaphorical plays.

Adelayo Adedayo as Nina bursts onto the stage with youth and energy at the start and is convincing in her adulation of Boris, her belief that nothing could be better than the life of a writer. Although he tries to disillusion her, explaining in a striking monologue how writing is like an addiction and how he is never living through experiences without jotting them down in a notebook to use, she remains faithful to her belief in art and isn’t frightened off by his idea for a story when he sees a seagull shot by Konstantin. He tells her he will write about a man who meets a girl who has lived all her life by a lake, like Nina, and how he breaks her like the seagull just because he has the time and nothing better to do.

The production did a great job in bringing out the comedy in the writing, with more humor added by the superb comic performances. Lloyd Hutchinson as Leo hasn’t been noted by the critics as he’s not a major character, but he was perhaps my favorite and I looked forward to each of his anecdotes, all funny and beautifully told in his Northern Ireland accent while all of the other characters completely ignored him. He was totally immersed in his own world and unforgettable.

In fact all of the characters are in their own world in this play and the production by Sean.

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