Postcard from Perth 31
The Seagull (Black Swan)
A friend and fellow-actor told me an old theatre joke the other day about the four-second version of The Seagull that’s based on the first and last lines of the play: ‘Why does Masha always wear black?’ ‘Because Konstantin shot himself.’
Described by Chekhov himself as ‘a comedy’, the play itself is singularly lacking in jokes. The opening night in Petersburg is one of the most famous disasters in theatre history: expecting a farce, the audience laughed in all the wrong places and booed at the end, and Chekhov fled the theatre vowing never to write a play again. Stanislavski’s production in Moscow two years later was an equally famous triumph, but the great director (who also played Trigorin, opposite a young Meyerhold as Konstantin) turned the play into a tragic love-triangle and transformed it into the standard-bearer for his own brand of stage naturalism (a transformation later scathingly criticized by the vehemently anti-naturalist Meyerhold). As drama, however, The Seagull is equally lacking in what we normally think of as dramatic action or even dialogue, at least if the latter is defined as speech that has some kind of performative effect or even moves the plot along. People talk and act, to be sure, but their words and actions have little bearing on the overall course of events. Instead they seem collectively mired in a kind of quicksand in which their every move only seems to sink them deeper in a process of inexorable and interminable catastrophe.
Rather than seeing them as comic or tragic, perhaps it’s more useful to view Chekhov’s plays under the category of irony (which Kierkegaard following Schlegel argued was in any case the form of consciousness proper to modernity, aesthetic or otherwise). In this light, it’s precisely the failure of the characters to speak or act effectively that renders them faithful to the conditions of contemporary existence. Another way of saying this is that Chekhov wrote tragicomedies of situation rather than tragedies of character or comedies of manners. He could almost be called the inventor of sit-com, with the word ‘sit’ in this case being used as a verb as well as a noun, if you’ll pardon the pun. (In fact he’s one playwright it’s almost impossible to stage without using chairs; I’ve been in a couple of minimalist productions of The Cherry Orchard myself that almost completely dispensed with them, but I still ended up at some point either sitting or lying on the floor.) Viewed as a master of irony, Chekhov paves the way for Beckett, and Larry David after him. Like Seinfeld, The Seagull could almost be described as ‘a show about nothing’, in which, as Kenneth Tynan said of Waiting for Godot, ‘nothing happens – twice’. In a sublime inversion of melodrama, Konstantin even shoots himself twice offstage – the second time successfully; and the melodramatic action of Nina’s seduction, pregnancy and abandonment by Trigorin likewise happens offstage in the two-year interval between Acts Three and Four. (Chekhov took things even further in this direction with his next play Uncle Vanya by having the title character attempt to shoot the Professor and miss in the failed climax at the end of Act Three.)
However you choose to classify it in terms of mood or genre, The Seagull is a transitional work – in Chekhov’s oeuvre and in the history of theatre. It stands at the crossroads between nineteenth-century melodrama, naturalism and Symbolism, and points beyond them to the twentieth century and the so-called theatre of the absurd. The title alone suggests an obvious precursor in Ibsen’s Wild Duck; but in Chekhov’s case the use of avian symbolism is characteristically ironic, as are the openly theatrical references (most obviously to Hamlet) and arguments about theatre, writing and aesthetics generally that crop up throughout the play – with Konstantin as a young struggling Symbolist locked in an artistic and emotional fight to the death both with his melodramatic actress-mother Arkadina and his popular realist-rival Trigorin. In fact Chekhov’s use of meta-theatrical or 'post-dramatic' irony in The Seagull incorporates a kind of prophetic critique of its own subsequent performance history. This is one of the reasons it remains such an iconic work for playwrights, actors, directors, companies and audiences today.
Kate Cherry’s new production for Black Swan has a beautiful simplicity for me because it’s essentially staged in a completely traditional way. As such it’s absolutely Chekhovian because it reveals the outlines of the play with such poignant and clarity and mostly allows it to speak for itself without extraneous commentary. This is a far cry from Benedict Andrews’s version at Belvoir a couple of years ago (with Judi Davis as Arkadina and David Wenham as Trigorin), which convincingly transposed the play to a contemporary Australian beach-house – a production which was itself a kind of homage to Neil Armfield’s even more typically homely and minimalist version (with Gillian Jones, Richard Roxburgh, Noah Taylor and Cate Blanchett) at Belvoir a decade earlier. Ironically these productions in the very act of stripping away accrued layers of sentimental performance traditions and conventions were less Chekhovian insofar as they staged a kind of stylistic intervention on behalf of Chekhov himself – the latter being scrupulous in his avoidance of any direct aesthetic, social, political or moral statements or judgements (again unlike Ibsen) regarding his characters (most of whom vociferously take positions of their own on every topic under the sun). For the same reason, I found some of the anachronisms in Hilary Bell’s otherwise smoothly playable translation – such as Trigorin’s very twentieth-century invocation of ‘human rights’ in his great diatribe about writing – struck a wrong note for me, especially given the otherwise very nineteenth-century staging; and I found myself missing some of the play’s more conventionally theatrical soliloquies and asides to the audience which had presumably been discarded in the interests of naturalism (but for me enrich its formal complexity and charm).
In contrast, by presenting the play otherwise complete with its nineteenth-century ‘Russian’ trappings (at least as seen through the lense of a certain ‘Anglo-Chekhovian’ tradition) Kate and her designer Fiona Bruce succeed in evoking a shimmering aura of lost innocence that made me laugh and weep at the follies of the figures onstage, their pretensions, delusions and desires. The moment of directorial and scenographic ‘intervention’ comes in Act Four with the unexpectedly Symbolist staging of Nina’s fleeting return-visit to Konstantin as a kind of vision, hallucination or dream (depending on your point of identification): the flimsy stage-curtain ‘walls’ of the house parting as the miniature outdoor stage by the lake from Act One flies in as a platform for their brief reunion – all as if ‘dreamed’ by the dying Sorin, who lies somnolent in his wheelchair at the edge of the stage, like a sleeping soldier at the edge of the frame in a Piero della Francesca fresco of the Resurrection. Here the nostalgic heart of the production seemed ironically to lie with Konstantin and his modernist desire for ‘new forms’, rather than Trigorin’s realism (or Arkadina’s taste for melodrama) – indirectly confirming what Chekhov himself said of Konstantin, that he is ‘a victim of his own talent’ (a typically cool clinical diagnosis that could incidentally be applied to so many ‘modernists’, then and now).
Of course loss of innocence is one of the things that this play is fundamentally about (Seinfeld and Godot notwithstanding). The comedy and tragedy of Nina and Konstantin falls essentially beneath this rubric; Arkadina and Trigorin have passed through it, and emerged world-weary and a little the-worse-for-wear but essentially intact on the other side, to compulsively deal out their own damage to others (the same is true to a certain extent of Dorn, for me the character in the play who most resembles Chekhov himself). Underlying this however is a darker undertow of familial damage, acknowledged or otherwise: Nina and her offstage ‘tyrant’ father; Arkadina’s abusive treatment of her son (mocked among other things for his ‘shopkeeper’ father, who is barely mentioned and never directly named – although Konstantin presumably suffers the humiliation of bearing his surname); Dorn’s unacknowledged parentage of Masha (explicit reference to which was cut from the end of Act One after the first production and never restored); the evident neglect of Masha’s own unwanted child with Medvedenko in Act Four; and the loss of Nina’s child with Trigorin. This too is a vein that runs through all four of Chekhov’s great plays, each of which features a family crippled and even immobilized by damage, denial and loss. Against this (and arguably growing directly out of it) is set the theme of lost or unrequited love: Konstantin for Nina (and beyond her, his own mother); Nina for Trigorin (a loss also suffered by Arkadina herself, even though she ultimately ‘has’ him); Polina for Dorn (whom she similarly ‘has’ without really ‘having’ him); Medvedenko for Masha; Masha for Konstantin; and so it goes on. It’s a tragi-comic chain of desire that Chekhov himself knew intimately (as he did the experience of having a physically and emotionally abusive father).
In this regard, the revelation for me in this production is Rebecca Davis’s luminous Masha (which brings me back to the opening joke, in which Masha is the prime target in her capacity as the emblematic Chekhovian character). Black-clad, and with expressively sculpted face and hands as pale and forlorn as slivers of moon, her transformation throughout the play from lovelorn but laughable Pierrot to hunched-over, hollowed-out creature of fate runs the gamut of Chekhov’s ever-changing moods and genres – from comedy to tragedy and from melodrama to absurdity – and provides the emotional through-line of the play. In another, very different production, I’d cast her as Konstantin; in this production, she’s his appropriate reflection. As such, it’s a show worth seeing for her alone.
The Seagull is in the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theate Centre of WA until 31 August.