The Theatre Week: The Three Seagulls

The Three Seagulls: Bristol Old Vic ☆☆☆

Amelia Paltridge (Nina) © Craig Fuller

Is there a better choice for a grad show than Chekhov’s The Seagull? An exploration of what it means to be a young theatrical artist, where idealism is quashed against the reality of an industry that chews and spits out most who dare enter it. It’s in the pantheon of great plays, unimpeachable in its mix of narrative drive, philosophical exploration, and memorable characters. Like Shakespeare, there is a reason why the Russian tragi-comedist cum doctor is rarely off our stages. It’s probably the play that comes with me on the desert island.

It’s arguably too perfect for a theatrical deconstruction to reveal more layers to it and that is the fate that befalls Sally Cookson’s version, fascinating though it proves over its 105 minutes runtime. The Three Seagulls takes on a trio of adaptions; from Christopher Hampton, Anya Reiss, and Aaron Posner and features a trio of actors tackling the younger roles (Konstantin, Nina, and Masha) which just about works, though it doesn’t cohere logically when it also casts two Trigorins, for no other reason it appears than casting opportunities. There is a sense of a large-scale first-year text project hanging over the evening, though given a sheen by Cookson whose productions are always inventive and theatrically surprising.  

It’s a work of moments which is the fate of many deconstructions; some technically excellent lip-synching, some dodgy Dad dancing, three cabaret chanteuses’ crooning an introduction, a moving finale in which the grads look at what comes next and an astonishing monologue from Dewi Wykes that doesn’t just push through the fourth wall but takes a sledgehammer to it and smashes right through. It reminded me a little of Pride and Prejudice *sort of, but where that play used its theatrical audaciousness to reframe the story, here the device’s get in the way of theatrical perfection more than it does illuminate the core elements of the story.

Emma Hadley Leonard (Masha), Jake Kenny-Byrne (Konstantin) and Lionelle Nsarhaza (Masha)

As always with Chekhov, it works best when it rides the wave of the psychological truth of the text. The confrontation between Mum and son, the seduction of an innocent by a bored writer, the final painful meeting between old lovers, each of these moments are mini-arias of love and pain dashed off in miniature. These are the moments when fireworks truly happen.

 The class of 2021 contains a range of strong performers, that fingers firmly crossed, make an impression, on this industry over the next few years. Having only been allowed to witness their work from a laptop screen this year, it is a relief to report that they can expand their performances out to fill the theatre with as much confidence as they can play to the camera. If I was to predict one name to look out for this graduating year it is Tessa Wong, who stole the work in cameo form during Hedda, but here runs away with the evening as Arkadinia, balancing the ridiculous Ab Fab caricature of the fading leading dame, with the emotional fear of the women being left behind in a world she doesn’t fully understand and no longer notices her. Across a couple of shows, I haven’t seen Wong hit a false note, there is a level of emotional truthfulness that shines on camera or in the auditorium. The hulking Theo Spofforth, the boyish Wykes, Emma Hadley-Leonard, and Lionelle Nsarhaza are other names to watch out from, though it’s a strong year all around.

There is always a boldness to the last show that BOVTS produces, a level of professionalism that means that they can lure theatre critics down from London and kickstart their careers. All the cheers then for a 5-star Telegraph review. It may not quite hit that level for me, a rung or two behind Nicholas Nickleby or King Lear, but after the slings and arrows they have received during their training, a fitting send-off, one that should be applauded from the rafters.

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