The Seagull – a play for writers, actors and lovers; and the Manchester Library Theatre Company’s final production before becoming part of the exciting new arthouse venue HOME, opening in spring this year and located at First Street North. The purpose-built venue will include a 500-seat theatre and five cinema screens, and promises to continue the Library Theatre Company’s Community and Education programme, which offers opportunities to become involved in various aspects of the theatre through workshops and projects, including the innovative ‘Storybox’, which aims to engage people with Alzheimer’s and dementia in performance and storytelling activities. This final production comes 62 years after the Company’s first in 1952, and 67 years after the Central Library Theatre first opened with The Seagull in 1947. It is also Artistic Director Chris Honer’s final production after 27 years at the Company, to be replaced by Walter Meierjohann, who is excited to be taking his visions to a new venue which promises to celebrate theatre and cinema together in one place.
Chekhov’s The Seagull revolves around nine characters, each struggling in their own way with their passions, be they for writing, acting or people. In a new version of the play, Anya Reiss has reimagined the first of Chekhov’s four great plays with a contemporary makeover that only serves to highlight the timelessness of the themes of unrequited love and the trials and tribulations of living the artist’s life. Reiss, graduate of the Royal Court’s Young Writer’s Programme, has retained much of Chekhov’s original script, testament to her love of, after working closely with the original material for this production, and connection with the play, stating in an interview: “I write in order to put things to bed, so that means at the core of most things I have written is something personal”. Her aim was to be true to the play to show how Chekhov’s characters’ struggles have lost none of their emotional resonance; anyone with an artistic leaning or a painful romantic history will be able to identify with at least one of the characters, and this is arguably enhanced by the characters’ modern dress and ‘tools’ – at the end of the play, struggling writer and lover Konstantin pours water over his Macbook and drops his mobile phone into a glass of water in a gesture of hopelessness. The emotional intensity of the play is not at all lost by the addition of contemporary aesthetics – Konstantin’s emo haircut even adds weight, not least to actor Ben Allen’s head, to his thwarted attempts to present an alternative piece of work in a culture dominated by the likes of writer Trigorin, who represents mainstream success, who has a normal haircut and wears ordinary smart-casual outfits throughout. The makeshift stage that Konstantin creates for his play, outside near a lake on the estate grounds, also adds pertinence in depicting people coming together to share their own private attempts at artistic expression and entertainment, despite living in today’s world of ubiquitous screens and commercial and indoor entertainment.
Chekhov’s The Seagull is known for its avoidance of melodrama and dramatic subtext, and this is handled well in this production. Tension and emotion is close to the surface but the clouds break off-stage, leading to a wholly engaging and suspenseful performance which reaches catharsis at the end of the play. The comedic elements were far from lost too, with excellent performances by Peter Macqueen as Sorin, Konstantin’s kindly, drunken, sarcastic uncle, and David Crellin as groundskeeper Shamrayev, who not only keeps the grounds but also keeps the characters somewhat grounded. These older characters also provide relief from the passionate intensity of the younger characters, who take art and love – who take life – so seriously.
The focus, as Chekhov intended, is on the exchanges between the characters and their inner lives rather than on action, which at the time was Chekov’s reaction against the conventions of the stage and perhaps why it was not initially well received, when it took to the stage in 1896, until theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski revived the play at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1899 – perhaps encouraging his actors to practice his Method Acting technique to help convey the play’s emotional rather than dramatic intensity, and its focus on character over plot.
The Library Theatre Company’s actors showed great talent and engagement with the text, and maintained great energy throughout, if at times and for some bordering on melodramatic performances. Outfits are contemporary and symbolic – Converse shoes and skinny jeans echoing youthful attempts at self-definition; Masha’s gothic attire suiting perfectly suiting her melancholic, brooding presence onstage, though sometimes one-dimensionally so. Perhaps a criticism of the revision could be the setting of a rich family’s country estate, perhaps reinforcing the somewhat dated suggestion that only rich people have the time to be artists and lovers, which possibly undid some of the good work at making the play more relevant to modern audiences.
The intimacy of the Lowry theatre is the perfect venue for this production. Voices seemed to be carried not so much by technological enhancement as by the force of the emotion behind the words. The literary grandeur of the play is not lost in this production, as Reiss has kept much of the script in-tact while cleverly avoiding any expressions that might jar with the modern setting. The talents of both the writer and the artistic director of the Library Theatre’s The Seagull are clearly apparent, and demonstrate the value of revisioning; of making a classic work fresh and accessible to a modern audience, whose applause could have brought the stuffed seagull back to life.

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