Trevor Nunn and the RSC emphasize the comedy of Chekhov's masterpiece to mostly beneficial effect.
Despite its melancholic Russian undertones and decidedly tragic fourth act, The Seagull was labeled "a comedy" by its author, and Nunn has clearly guided his company to find the humor in both their often foolish characters and their grandiose pronouncements. When the first words of the play -- Masha's declaration "I'm in mourning for my life" -- earns a hearty guffaw or two, you know Nunn has opted to banish those Russian skies of gray from the stage as long as he can.
It's definitely a valid approach, and one that helps the first two-and-a-half hours of The Seagull fly by. Indeed, little that could actually be termed tragedy happens in the first three acts of the play, set during the annual summer visit of the great actress Arkadina (Frances Barber) to the country home of her brother Sorin (Ian McKellen on my night; William Gaunt on most others). Even the second-act suicide attempt of Konstantin (Richard Goulding), Arkadina's oversensitive son, results in nothing more than a flesh wound.
True, Konstantin has lost the affections of the beautiful, young actress Nina (Romola Garai) to the famed writer Trigorin (an unimpressive Gerald Kyd, who also bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Rasputin), his mother's younger lover. But Chekhov never convinces us that their "love" is any more than a passing fancy between two lost and unformed souls who have found community in the desolate countryside.
In fact, those countryside skies turn dark and gloomy for the fourth act, set two years later in the midst of a bleak Russian winter as Arkadina and Trigorin have been summoned back to the home of her now-dying brother. And just as suddenly as the climate has changed, Nunn's production loses its bearings. The pacing becomes almost torturously slow, and the supporting characters -- including Masha (the very funny Monica Dolan), her nebbishy husband Medvedenko (Ben Meyjes), and her unhappily married parents (Guy Williams and Melanie Jessop) -- become banal and uninteresting. Worse yet, McKellen, who has turned in a masterfully funny performance as Sorin -- a part other actors have rendered instantly forgettable -- barely speaks.
Indeed, audiences begin to long for the promised reappearance of the gloriously self-centered Arkadina, an actress so facile it's impossible to tell whether her tears are real and whose ability to change moods on a dime is positively breathtaking. As played by the regal-yet-earthy Barber as a cross between Anna Magnani in the 1950s and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960s, this grandest of grande dames manages to earn our contempt, pity, and sympathy, sometimes all in the same moment.
Those who know the play may breathlessly await its final scene, the long-delayed reunion between Konstantin, who has seemingly matured into a more stable young man, and Nina, now abandoned by Trigorin and barely making a living as a third-rate actress. Their exchange is one of the most moving Chekhov -- or any playwright -- has ever penned. While the very fine Goulding holds up his end of the bargain, Garai -- who has previously overplayed Nina's naivete earlier in the evening to sometimes annoying effect -- now goes too far in essaying Nina's quasi-madness, as if she's auditioning for Lucia de Lamermoor.
It's a shame, since Garai has some spectacular moments in this final confrontation, and the scene gets some brilliant additional effects by set designer Christopher Oram, lighting designer Neil Austin, and sound designer Fergus O'Hare. But ultimately this Seagull ends with both a bang and a whimper, which fails to do true justice to Chekhov's undeniable masterpiece.