Kristin Scott Thomas is an actor who doesn't act. Rather, she moves into a character, breathing the same air as a human reality.
It's a style heaven-sent for the plays and people of Anton Chekhov, as she's now demonstrating as Arkadina, the overbloomed actress who sweeps her way through "The Seagull" in the wonderfully subtle production that opened last night.
This is a play about thrown-away lives and spiritual emptiness, and here it's staged with natural fluency by Ian Rickson, with an elegant new adaptation by Christopher Hampton that sounds as though it were written the day before yesterday. No wonder it was a hit in London.
Chekhov's plays reveal a society at odds with itself, and he expected a new kind of realistic, natural behavior from his actors. More than any playwright before him (don't let's count Shakespeare), Chekhov expects his actors to be real right down to their toenails.
There are no small roles in "The Seagull," even though it is around Arkadina's whims and fancies, artifices and beguilements, that the play's action - comic and tragic both - revolves.
Arkardina is a great role, and Scott Thomas - the classic beauty of "The English Patient" and the jaded pal of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" - gives a great performance. With her leonine patrician profile, puffs of dismay, snorts of delight and petty diva excesses, she gives a perfect portrait of an actress close to the top of that first downward swoop.
Eyes bright with a manic gleam of fear, she's fighting off middle age with that gallantry only actors of a certain age can muster.
Not all of the cast - many of them imported from the original British production - is at her level, but then, how could they be? Particularly fine is Carey Mulligan, who makes a luminous and touching Nina, the aspiring young actress. Mackenzie Crook is a properly haunted Konstantin, Arkadina's doomed son.
They are well served by Rickson's staging, which suggests the stealthily torpid atmosphere of a somewhat seedy, bourgeois Russian country house at the turn of the 20th century. The scenery and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler, the lighting by Peter Mumford, the sound design of Ian Dickinson (you'll hear twittering birds around you before the lights even go down) and music composed by Stephen Warbeck - all imported from the original, Royal Court production - play their part in the Chekhovian magic bullet of loss and despair.
Silence is never empty in Ian Rickson’s magnificent production of “The Seagull,” which opened Thursday night at the Walter Kerr Theater. When a hush descends on Chekhov’s restless country estate dwellers — as it often does, abrupt and unbidden — the air remains alive with crosscurrents of thought, clashing chords of longing and the steady thrum of time passing. Brought to life by a superlative ensemble led by Kristin Scott Thomas, the thwarted souls of “The Seagull” are as self-revealing in frozen speechlessness as they are in frantic flights of conversation.
The careful cultivation of such transparency, to the point that we feel instinctively tuned into the minds of every individual onstage, helps to make this “Seagull” the finest and most fully involving production of Chekhov that I have ever known. The seeming contradictions of tone and character that have sent many a great theatrical artist stumbling into confusion here achieve a cohesiveness that sacrifices neither clarity nor complexity. It is, to make honest use of the language of hucksters, a limited, once-in-a-lifetime offer, as the show runs only through Dec. 21.
“The Seagull” was Mr. Rickson’s valedictory production as artistic director of the Royal Court Theater, and when I saw it there last year, I couldn’t imagine its being much better and worried about this delicate plant’s thriving in a Broadway barn. I arrived at the Walter Kerr as braced for disappointment as any of Chekhov’s inveterate losers.
Yet this “Seagull” has only ripened and deepened. The American additions to the cast, who include the film actor Peter Sarsgaard and the fast-rising Zoe Kazan, create characters who are both as cozily and as uncomfortably a part of the play’s extended clan as family members should be. And Ms. Scott Thomas, who was excellent as the aging actress Arkadina in London, here delivers a magnified, intensified performance that more than ever is the keystone to understanding this play.
Let me hasten to add that Ms. Scott Thomas — though her status as a shrewd, chic presence in films like “The English Patient” and “Gosford Park” makes her the most famous of the cast — does not dominate the proceedings. The vain, applause-addicted Arkadina may live life as an unrelenting star turn, but when it comes to acting, a Chekhov play must be a society of equals. If you leave a production thinking only of one person (with that person being, say, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen or Meryl Streep), then the show hasn’t done its job.
As willfully idiosyncratic as Chekhov’s characters are, they are all cut from the same nubbly cloth of exasperated loneliness and misfired intentions. Chekhov’s work sees the human condition as an exercise in frustration that is both comic (“Ha! They can’t get what they want”) and tragic (“Sob! They can never get what they want”). And he works both sides of that equation more successfully than any playwright.
The setting of “The Seagull” — the lakeside estate on which Sorin (Peter Wight), Arkadina’s ailing older brother, lives with her grown son, Konstantin (Mackenzie Crook) — is a Petri dish in which frustration mutates and multiplies. “O, is there anything more boring than this pure country boredom?” says Arkadina, who stays there with her lover, Trigorin (Mr. Sarsgaard), a fashionable fiction writer, between theatrical engagements.
Being bored allows Arkadina and company plenty of time to consider their unsatisfactory relationships with one another. Shall I refresh your memory on the chain of entanglements here? There’s the aspiring young actress, Nina (Carey Mulligan), who is loved by Konstantin but falls for Trigorin; the vodka-swigging Masha (Ms. Kazan), who loves Konstantin and is loved by the schoolteacher, Medvedenko (Pearce Quigley); and Masha’s father, Shamrayev (Julian Gamble), the estate’s steward, who is married to Polina (Ann Dowd), who loves the dapper neighborhood doctor, Dorn (Art Malik).
Communication does not come easily to these thin-skinned time markers. Mr. Rickson insightfully elicits this difficulty on a number of levels, starting with the linguistic. “The Seagull” classically includes the angry reflections of Konstantin on the “need for new forms” and the inadequacy of conventional theater and fiction. Here that sense of inadequacy is translated into every word uttered. (Christopher Hampton’s blunt-spoken but sharp-witted translation is the perfect starting point for Mr. Rickson’s interpretation.)
The interruption of Konstantin’s avant-garde play, performed by Nina in the opening scene, becomes a presiding metaphor for everyone’s inability to connect. Conversations are invariably interrupted at crucial moments, shapely epigrams punctured in midsentence and love scenes rendered ludicrous by the unwelcome arrival of a third party.
People speak fitfully and awkwardly in this “Seagull” until they erupt — and how they erupt — in irritation with their own clumsiness and unspoken resentments. (Compare the mixtures of passivity and aggression in Mr. Gamble, Ms. Dowd and Mr. Quigley.) And watch for those moments of heartbreakingly graceless physical contact, where helping arms and caressing hands are shaken off as if they were flies.
The sad thing is that they all want so badly to be understood. They constantly jostle for one another’s attention, the implication being that if they aren’t acknowledged by others, they may not really exist. That’s why they keep humming and singing at inappropriate moments, and why Arkadina, worried that her siren’s powers are on the wane, keeps shoving her way into the spotlight.
Ms. Scott Thomas’s performance is funnier, sadder and braver than it was in London. Arkadina’s fears of fading away assume an almost clownish aspect as she scampers coquettishly to show she could play a girl of 15 or literally grovels in self-abasement before Trigorin. Striking grandly theatrical postures from the age of Duse and Bernhardt, this Arkadina knows that the only way to get attention in life is to be larger than life. Ms. Scott Thomas draws her with a vividness that is equally free of mercy and malice.
The same can be said of the whole cast, which turns loneliness and restlessness into a stuttering pyrotechnic display that provides the color against Hildegard Bechtler’s artfully stark set. These characters may be losers, but they’re not limp. Mr. Crook’s palpably intelligent, fiery-eyed Konstantin doesn’t collapse into fatal sadness; he self-combusts from stymied passion.
Mr. Wight’s invalid Sorin evokes the pathetically willing spirit within the weak flesh, while Mr. Malik conveys both the cruelty and compassion in Dorn’s willed detachment. Ms. Kazan, who just gets better with every performance, tastily brings out the self-lacerating perversity in Masha’s defeatism.
With sly brilliance Mr. Sarsgaard presents Trigorin as an awkward, reticent man transformed by a worshipful public into a closely watched dandy. Power has, in a sense, been thrust upon him, and he exercises it with a passivity that is equal parts purring smugness and self-contempt.
Ms. Mulligan’s delectably dewy but determined Nina is just the girl to rouse him from his lethargy. More than any actress I’ve seen, she captures the raw hunger within Nina’s ambition, the ravening vitality as well the vulnerability. This is no mere fluttery sacrificial seagull. There’s a reason that the mother-fixated Konstantin falls in love with her.
Despite the solipsism shared by everyone in this “Seagull,” you don’t doubt that they care for one another, that even that archnarcissist Arkadina loves her son and brother. This in turn makes us care when the tone shades to black in the final act.
Throughout the play death has insinuated its presence in a whisper, whenever someone falls down or a shot is heard. Everyone laughs in nervous relief after such episodes. There comes a point when someone falls down and doesn’t get up. What was funny isn’t funny anymore. This beautiful production makes that transition with the devastating stealth of life itself.
If you're a fan of Chekhov's writing and Peter Sarsgaard's acting, you face a serious dilemma this fall.
The announcement that Sarsgaard would play Trigorin in the Broadway transfer of the Royal Court Theatre's acclaimed U.K. revival of The Seagull was intriguing. The actor has stage experience, and the wry intelligence and understated sexiness he has brought to a string of mostly well-received films (Kinsey, Garden State, Shattered Glass) seemed to bode well for this assignment.
Sadly, though, Sarsgaard doesn't rise to the challenges confronting him any more than his complex and crucial character does. It might be an overstatement to say that his curiously awkward, lackluster performance fatally wounds this Seagull (* * ½ out of four), which opened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, but only a slight one.
No production of this classic can fly unless we believe that Trigorin, the charismatic but ultimately spineless writer who woos two actresses, can handily seduce and devastate both women. But if Sarsgaard conveys his moral and spiritual lassitude, he hasn't the presence to suggest even an amateur lothario. Gesticulating weakly and dutifully stroking the beard he acquired for the role, he suggests a nice-looking nerd auditioning for the school play.
That's a shame, because the other legs in Trigorin's romantic triangle could hardly be sturdier. Leading lady Kristin Scott Thomas, who earned an Olivier Award in the Royal Court's London staging, is a witty, poignant Arkadina, revealing a nervous fragility in the fading thespian who lives with and clings to Trigorin. As the doomed ingénue Nina, who suffers even more for her lover's callousness, fellow West End import Carey Mulligan is equally lovely and moving, at once a fresh-faced foil and a worthy rival to the elegant but vulnerable Arkadina.
Other actors from the British production continue to thrive under Ian Rickson's sensitive direction of the text, briskly adapted by Christopher Hampton. Mackenzie Crook mines the post-adolescent agony of Arkadina's son, Konstantin, a less successful writer who pines for Nina. With his gaunt appearance and haunted eyes, Crook physically embodies the young man's hunger for the affection that Nina and his mother lavish on Trigorin.
Art Malik is crisply winning as Dorn, a sympathetic doctor, and Pearce Quigley is endearing as Medvedenko, the teacher who harbors his own unrequited passion for mordant Masha (a droll Zoe Kazan), who's hopelessly devoted to Konstantin.
This Seagull may not leave audiences feeling as thwarted as its lovelorn characters, but its uneven casting makes for a frustrating experience.
The symbolic bird killed by brooding writer Konstantin in "The Seagull" returns to Ian Rickson's production in the shattering final scene, stuffed and mounted in a glass display case. But the director, adaptor Christopher Hampton and their fine ensemble have achieved a complete reversal of the taxidermist's approach, injecting startling vitality, immediacy and infinite nuance into Chekhov's 1895 play. Rarely is the writer's signature balance of humor, pathos and tragedy so exquisitely rendered or the modulation between them orchestrated so affectingly. Despite one casting choice that doesn't quite measure up, this is powerful theater.
Premiered at London's Royal Court and transferred to Broadway with much of its cast intact, Rickson's production brings the pleasure of rediscovery and fresh responses to a frequently produced classic -- which seems appropriate given the play's contemplation of a writer consumed by the desire to challenge existing forms.
In dialogue stripped of starchy formality yet never impaired by jarring contemporary intrusions, Hampton's lucid new version places all the standard Chekhovian themes in stinging relief: self-reflection and regret; romantic, artistic and idealistic disappointment; decay of the soul and society; and the encroaching obsolescence of the bored upper class. But in a play notable for the fact that almost all its drama is internal, what's most rewarding is the way in which this production lays bare the characters' emotions in subtle ways.
Credit for that disclosure goes beyond writing and direction to the meticulous design elements and, naturally, to the cast, almost all of whom inhabit their roles with a level of understanding denied the characters themselves.
As defined by Art Malik's wryly detached Dr. Dorn, the actors, writers, unfulfilled aesthetes and thankless servants gathered on a Russian country estate are either neurotic or boring, while for starry-eyed actress Nina (Carey Mulligan), the knowledge distilled from her disillusionment is that "life is ugly." However, it's in the intimate, real-life shadings between those blunt assessments that this production excels.
Take, for example, Kristin Scott Thomas as fading actress Arkadina. From the moment we meet her, she relentlessly turns the spotlight on herself, leaning forward with studied intensity to take in the ponderous play written by her son Konstantin (Mackenzie Crook) and performed by Nina. Much of what we need to know about Arkadina is etched in her showy reactions and constant interruptions. But underneath the flamboyant narcissism there's a twitchy insecurity -- a discomfort that makes her unable to regard her son as a fellow artist, and even less so Nina, an actress more youthful and beautiful than she is.
It's the anchoring naturalism brought even to this diva in chronic performance mode that makes Scott Thomas so transfixing.
Floating on a cloud of vanity and condescension, Arkadina might almost be a caricature, but Scott Thomas shows flashes of needling anxiety as she perceives her son's pain yet remains powerless to soothe him. When a maternal impulse does fight its way through the theatrics, it seems to surprise even Arkadina before being swept aside in one of the magnificent mood swings of her defensive self-absorption.
That mother-son relationship plays in moving contrast to the unconditional affection of Arkadina's brother Sorin (Peter Wight) for his nephew. Distractedly brushing a flower through his beard or caressing Nina's shoes, Wight conveys the ache of a man who has never known love, is ruefully considering the missed opportunities of his life and is impotent in his lack of influence over his impossible sister.
Konstantin's steady self-destruction is given wrenching life by Crook. Gaunt and tormented, he bristles with nervous frustration whenever his mother is near, and simmers with resentment -- both personal and professional -- toward her lover, successful writer Trigorin (Peter Sarsgaard).
Konstantin's yearning for his mother's affection is matched by his tender feelings for Nina. The luminous Mulligan plays her as a guileless but sympathetic provincial, hungering for a career as an actress, but even more for the "fame... real, spectacular fame" that comes with it. While her tearful fragility makes her seem an entirely different species from Arkadina, Nina's manic determination to endure, even after she's been chewed up and spat out by Trigorin, gives the two women commonalities.
There's heart-breaking poignancy in the production's depiction of those doomed to love the wrong people and to see their dreams go unrealized. Even when "The Seagull" is played for comedy, as in the early scenes with funereal estate manager's daughter Masha (Zoe Kazan), the melancholy strain haunts the action like minor-key underscoring.
Hollow-eyed and stoop-shouldered, Kazan's Masha is all sullen, self-dramatizing gloom ("I'm in mourning for my life"), suggesting that her feelings for Konstantin -- the only one of the group more miserable than she is -- may be merely a carryover crush from childhood. But as she vows to rip out that love by its roots, marrying devoted lapdog Medvedenko (a touching Pearce Quigley) instead, the full agony of Masha's situation steadily blooms.
That shifting emotional range, via almost imperceptible degrees, from amusement to compassion to stunning hardness is Rickson and Hampton's crowning achievement.
Designer Hildegard Bechtler echoes the transitions. The handful of birch trees against an austere black wall has one foot in traditional Chekhovian presentation and the other in modern minimalism. But if that picture places a somber veil on the characters' early lakeside interaction, the move indoors to the house's frayed, sad interior with its windows looking onto darkness seals the image of a crumbling world being drained of life. The seagull is not the only facsimile of a living thing on view behind glass here.
The production's one unsatisfying note is Sarsgaard. The insight and intelligence so evident in the actor's screen roles get muffled in his curiously spent performance. His passionless Trigorin lends weight to the notion that Arkadina is drawn to him solely for the reflected glow of his fame. But while he does slowly reveal the opportunistic worm beneath the self-possessed surface, Sarsgaard appears to be struggling to get a read on his role for much of the play.
Still, one uncertain characterization in a panorama of so many full-bodied, revelatory ones does little to dull the incandescence or the overwhelming emotional impact of this illuminating production.