Theatre Review: Secret House’s The Seagull is beautiful, edgy and raw (at The Depot Theatre until 16 December)

The Depot Theatre and Secret House have once again worked their magic on a classic, this time bringing Anton Chekov’s The Seagull into the modern era. Stripped back to its heart, this is a compelling tale of the frailty of the mind. Cleverly adapted, beautifully designed and expertly cast, there is nothing to fear from this Seagull – it is immensely watchable and entirely relatable for the modern audience.

As Anthony Skuse observes in his directorial notes, Chekov can sometimes be a chore to watch. Aside from the length (most plays are three or four acts while today’s audience is more acclimated to 90 minutes with no interval), Chekov’s writing is ponderous and cumbersome. There’s a lot of introspection and picking at the human condition. Plus, the characters’ lives are usually pretty miserable. And ostensibly nothing much happens. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, which is a challenge Skuse was determined to rise to. And does.

The director has adapted the text to fit a run time just on two hours with no interval. He has also added some modern phrasing here and there, to give the dialogue more resonance. The only criticism with the adaptation of the text is that Skuse holds onto the overlong Russian names, which are spoken in full; seldom do you hear your family and friends address each other by their first, middle and sur-names in today’s world.

But it is in his approach to staging that Skuse really shines, taking The Seagull out of its natural habitat and applying a distinctly modern style to the production. While some actors leave the stage at the end of their scene, others sit quietly to the side of the action. They are live versions of the central thoughts running through the minds of those still in-scene, not so much engaging with the action as reflecting it. A particularly raunchy encounter between Arkadina and Tirgorin, staged front and centre of the theatre space, was probably not what the writer intended back in the late 1800s, but fits perfectly within the action. There is a modern, accessible familiarity to the scenes and interactions that is not always so easy to achieve with Chekov.

This is also one of the most beautifully designed pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year. Drawing inspiration from the opening act, which takes place by a large lake at dusk, the set, designed by Kyle Jonsson, features a mirrored wall, spanning the rear arms of the diamond stage. It is distorted in the style of a funhouse mirror, easily evoking the rippling water of the lake. The floor is covered in coarse black sand, held in place by a retaining platform that runs parallel to the two flanks of audience seating. As the play begins, a thin black drape hangs over a large wooden desk in the centre of the space, representing the stage upon which Konstantin will showcase his latest work. Later, this desk becomes a dining table and the chairs which were assembled for the audience of the play are returned to their more accustomed setting. Props are used sparingly but carefully – grass to indicate a day spent in the field, dried leaves heralding the coming winter.

The mirrored-set would not be nearly as effective were it not for the excellent lighting design, by Liam O’Keefe. Although almost monochrome, O’Keefe’s design manages to invoke the cool evening moon and the warm summer sun in equally balanced measure. The actors’ reflections during the first act are hazy and dim; in contrast, the final acts, which see the company indoors, are lit in such a way as to make the reflections feel more distinct (despite the waviness of the surface). Subtle and expertly done.

Ella Butler’s costume design is simple, reminiscent of the rustic clothing that would have suited the play’s original Russian setting. But there are enough modern tropes to bring the audience along. What is most noticeable from the costume design is the absence of colour or pattern, save for the occasional scarf. In fact, there is a bleakness to the whole production design which thoroughly suits the author.

Skuse’s production also excels in terms of casting, with the four leads all give nuanced, stand-out performances.

Deborah Galanos displays her extensive experience and talent, delivering a commanding performance as Arkadina. She is immensely believable as the ageing diva, not because of her age or personal career, but because every motivation of this troubled character is visible in her physicality. Her poised, polished execution elevates the performances of her fellow actors.

As Arkadina’s love interest, Trigorin, Abe Mitchell gives a mature and well-reasoned portrayal of an artist at war with his talent. Arkadina’s son, the troubled artist Konstantin, is played well by James Smithers. He is fragile and awkward – exactly as the role calls for.

Rounding out the central roles is Jane Angharad as a wide-eyed Nina. She brings a spark of light to the darkness surrounding her and there is a controlled feistiness to her performance.

The supporting cast deliver a modern realism to the work, and despite their limited stage time they have clearly evolved their own characters’ backstories.

Skuse has his actors use their own native dialects, bringing a mish-mash of voices to the stage. It’s an interesting directorial choice that could have backfired, but instead seems to add to the characterisation: Angharad’s lilting Welsh accent lends a naïveté to Nina, while Paul Armstrong’s Yorkshire-esque tones make Dorn extremely likeable. Only Charmaine Bingwa’s contracted take on the language by applying the accent of her Zimbabwean parents seems a little out of place (although it does not detract from her excellent performance).

The actors also provide the soundscape for the production. Seated on the platform overseeing the action, the resting actors use water-filled bowls and glasses to create a resonating hum. At other times, Matthew Bartlett, as the character Yakov, produces an acoustic guitar and gently strums a melancholy folk tune. Bartlett sings too, along with Mitchell, most notably to mark the transition between the lake and the country manor. It’s just another element of the production that lifts this above your usual classical fare.

Secret House are known for breathing new life into Shakespeare’s more obscure works. It is a magic that they have now applied to Chekov. It’s a shame this production has a limited two-week run as it is definitely a must see. Especially for anyone who has failed to engage with, or never bothered with, Chekov in the past. Get in quick!

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Seagull, written by Anton Chekov and adapted by Anthony Skuse, is playing at The Depot Theatre until 16th December. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night, Friday 8th December.

Photo credit Bob Seary