Chekhov’s trio at The National Theatre: “Bold and risky – and it works”

The Seagull by Chekhov, , Writer - Anton Chekhov, Director - Jonathan Kent, Designer - Tom Pye,

The Seagull by Chekhov, , Writer - Anton Chekhov, Director - Jonathan Kent, Designer - Tom Pye, Lighting - Mark Henderson, Music - Jonathan Dove, Sound - Paul Groothuis, The National Theatre, London, UK, 2016, Credit - Johan Persson - / - Credit: Archant

Striking a balance between existential gloom and satire is always a challenge in Chekhov.

But David Hare and director Jonathan Kent manage it superbly in this transfer from Chichester of ‘Young Chekhov’ – a production of his three earliest plays: Platonov, Ivanov and The Seagull.

Whether seeing all three in one sitting (on select days) or separately, Hare and Kent paper over the cracks in Platonov (Chekhov’s first and rarely performed play, elegantly truncated here) and its successor Ivanov and allow themes that are most fully explored in The Seagull to emerge with astonishing clarity.

With its look at lazy estate owners and land managers snapping at the heels of their employers, Platonov’s issues and characters foreshadow much in The Cherry Orchard, including a land-auction plot.

Written when Chekhov was 20, the play shows the righteous anger of youth taking centre-stage.

Small-town philanderer and schoolteacher Platonov (James McArdle) rages war against the petty self-preoccupations of his community by seducing its women.

Bored with his innocent wife Sasha (Jade Williams), he flits between sophisticated widower Anna (played with delicate wit by Nina Sosanya) and febrile ex-love Sofya who turns burgeoning matriarch once spurned (a luminous Olivia Vinall).

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Chekhov’s recurring figure of the flawed local doctor – here Triletsky (Joshua James), a louche, pale imitation of Platonov – further consolidates the nihilism.

As Platonov, Scottish rising star McArdle owns the stage as he plays the field, high on his own rhetoric.

McArdle is utterly convincing as an example of failing Chekhovian masculinity – belligerent and blind to responsibility when, hung-over in his dirty long johns, a roll call of wronged women come a-knocking at his door.

From Platonov’s self-gratification, Chekhov moves on to Ivanov’s full-blown depression.

Ivanov (Geoffrey Streatfield) has married a Jewish woman, disowned by her wealthy family and the union causes him social embarrassment in his anti-Semitic circle.

Kent powers a key birthday party scene with surprisingly camp humour as lusty widow Marfusha (Emma Amos) spills out of her dress and stingy hostess Zinaida (Debra Gillett) sits as if sucking on a lemon on the divan.

Full-tilt humour provides necessary relief, enlivening the rather interminable scenes in which Ivanov bemoans life’s miseries. It’s bold, risky and it works.

In The Seagull, skirt hems have lifted with time’s passing and Anna Chancellor gives us a mesmerising and archly modern Irina, the actress – all angled, flirtatious shoulders, bubbling laughter and fluttering fingertips.

But failed judgements continue – a mother who cannot reign in her desire for attention over her son’s struggle for autonomy and recognition as a writer.

Suicide as a romanticised escape beckons again while Hamlet is referenced as in the other plays, as a literary figure that is ever prevalent in their troubled minds and souls.

The ensemble is outstanding. On an ingeniously flexible set by Tom Pye, haunting lighting picks out lonely silver birch trees and a lake that is smooth and deadly as mercury.

Seen together or individually, this is thrilling and illuminating Chekhov – vital and tragically cruel.

Rating - 5/5

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