- Title: The Seagull
- Written by: Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Simon Stephens
- Director: Daniel Brooks
- Actors: Michelle Monteith, Paolo Santalucia, Hailey Gillis and Raoul Bhaneja
- Company: Soulpepper
- Venue: Yonge Centre for the Performing Arts
- City: Toronto
- Year: Runs to April 30
Here comes one of Anton Chekhov’s major works again for a third time this Toronto theatre season, once again reminding us that there is little all that new about our declining times.
For instance, if you think audience misbehaviour leading to a play being stopped is a postpandemic phenomenon, then you obviously have forgotten about The Seagull.
Now on stage in a cheeky and then cutthroat contemporary production by director Daniel Brooks at Soulpepper, the play begins out on a farm in the country where would-be radical writer Konstantin (Paolo Santalucia, sporting a hipster riff on a Three Stooges haircut) is putting on an outdoor performance starring his girlfriend-next-door, Nina (Hailey Gillis), with a dual purpose.
The young playwright/director wants to épater his bourgeois family and friends with a new form of theatre that contains a repudiation of their old ones – but also, and this is very 2023, wants to be highly praised for doing so. He especially wants unconditional love from his actor mother, Irina (Michelle Monteith; astounding), whose supposedly old-fashioned style he openly reviles.
Instead, Irina puts on her own performance in the audience during the show, and after one too many irreverent interjections, Konstantin cancels the end of his play in a pique. (Irina shrugs; she thought she was at a relaxed performance.)
The enduring genius of Chekhov’s opening scene is in its ambiguity. Are Konstantin and Irina clashing about art at all – or is their fight really about the jealousy the son feels toward his single mother’s new beau Boris (Raoul Bhaneja, busting all the character’s cliché), a successful “man of letters” who has Nina in awe?
And is Konstantin’s play really that bad – or is it maybe really good? The on-stage audience – all those ancillary Chekhov characters that make his plays so rich, such as culture-loving, roughneck farm manager (Randy Hughson) and his ostentatiously depressed, yet full-of-love daughter (Ellie Ellwand) – have different opinions. Brooks perfectly calibrates the avant garde aesthetics of the play within the play (hand-held mics, white make-up) to split the off-stage audience, too.
The off-stage Soulpepper audience will no doubt be similarly divided about his overall production of this “new version” of Chekhov’s play by the British playwright Simon Stephens – with direction that adds a level of self-conscious theatricality to the overall proceedings.
That starts with a clownish farmhand (an amusingly louche Dan Mousseau) affixing a sign that says “LAKE” to the semi-transparent plastic sheet that forms the backdrop of designer Shannon Lea Doyle’s deconstructed set before the show starts.
The characters then regularly hurl whatever prop they happen to have in hand against that plastic, drawing attention to the fact that we’re watching a play; the actors go metatheatrical in most moments of heightened emotion, too, with extravagant crying or anger followed by stagey storming off.
The Seagull is already a play about theatre and performance though, so while some of this is good fun, some of it is like getting a Google alert for an appointment you’re already attending.
This play is also about the old eating the young – and that comes through perhaps loudest and clearest and sharpest of all in Brooks’ production.
I’ve never seen more unlikeable versions of the mid-career artists Irina and Boris, whose attitudes toward the younger artists Konstantin and Nina are destructive and predatory rather than nurturing, than the ones incarnated by Monteith and Bhaneja here.
If this approach to the play verges on the moralistic, it also feels right given Soulpepper’s – to use the codeword – problematic history with Chekhov. The company skyrocketed in local audience’s estimations at the turn of the millennium with productions of his plays directed by Laszlo Marton, a Hungarian director who came to Toronto as an artistic guru, but with whom the company eventually cut ties because of sexual harassment complaints. The fallout from his #MeToo scandals in Hungary and here nearly destroyed the company.
The Seagull, the first-ever full-length Chekhov production at Soulpepper to not be directed by Marton, is a fascinating and complex work that indirectly grapples with that past – with its scenes in which the uncouth art-loving Leo talks about the giants of theatre he misses. (And, hey, there’s founding member Diego Matamoros playing a Chekhovian doctor once again as he did in Platonov back in 2000).
Brooks’ take on Chekhov definitely has its own unique feel. Its sense of humour is unusual – bleak slapstick with Beckettian undertone rather than the cringe comedy I normally associate with the playwright.
I missed some of the playwright’s humanism in this vision – though this may be partly owing to Stephens’ neither here-nor-there adaptation. There are elements – the regular f-bombs, an added-in onstage sex act – that feel like wandering into a lecture hall where a young but not really that young English professor in a leather jacket is talking about how effing cool Chekhov is, man.
But Stephens’ script is terrific as Konstantin and Irina outline their separate arguments about art. Says the former, “Unless you take great care of it, theatre can be the most tedious, old-fashioned, prejudiced, elitist form there is.” No worries about that here, now.
Editor’s note: Clarification April 17, 2023: This review has been updated to clarify attribution of some elements of the production.