Thomas' range is so wide that at one moment she's leaping in the air to demonstrate the joy she takes in her career and the next descending into despair over her inability to reach suicidal son Konstantin (Mackenzie Crook). Every angle of Arkadina's character shows up in the actress' angular face. One minute, the self-involved actress disdains the people surrounding her on the estate belonging to brother Sorin (Peter Wight), and the next she's playing up to them with abject regard. She's convinced she's still youthful and beautiful and then she demands reassurance. She's secure in the love of younger short-story writer Trigorin (Peter Sarsgaard) but, no, she's jealous and accusatory.
While Scott Thomas' success is somewhat expected, given her film and stage pedigree, Carey Mulligan's stunning turn as the impressionable and eventually destroyed Nina arrives less heralded. Playing Nina is often a perilous shoal on which young thespians founder, but the fair, fresh-faced Mulligan runs the character's gamut with touching ardor. Entering breathlessly on the run in one of set-and-costume designer Hildegard Bechtler's delicate Russian-summer dresses and then delivering the plummy speech Konstantin writes for the play his mother mocks, Mulligan instantly sends early Tony Award vibes. At play's end, she forcibly attacks the last scene where Nina, now a failed actress, returns from Moscow to visit the increasingly despondent Konstantin. While Mulligan isn't the thoroughly broken doll that Nina can be, the devastation she's experienced is visible enough to make an indelible impression.
Rickson derives nuanced portrayals from the entire ensemble -- not least from former Jewel in the Crown star Art Malik as Dorn. But two of the most interesting portraits are contributed by stateside additions to the Royal Court cast. As Arkadina's lover, who sees in Nina a metaphorical seagull he can destroy, Sarsgaard -- wearing a full Smith Brothers beard that minimizes the sexual appeal most Trigorins flaunt -- gives top priority to the writer's lengthily expressed self-loathing. While that personality trait is normally presented as more of a tactic to ensnare Nina's sympathies, here it's played for complete sincerity.
Meanwhile, the hot-as-a-griddle Zoe Kazan has a marvelous time playing the gloomily unpleasant Masha. She does it as a young Bette Davis might have, right down to the bent-at-elbow arm waving a lighted cigarette. The bravura approach works more than it should -- frequently reaping many of the laughs Chekhov must have wanted from his so-called "comedy."
As you may know, Masha is the one always wearing black because she's in mourning for her life. But the starkness of her attire is undercut by Bechtler's first-act set, which features a prominent black upstage (and wrongly upstaging) wall. It's the one truly discordant note in an otherwise well-conducted Chekhovian symphony of human hilarity and pain.
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