As their final play of Michaelmas term, Fortnight Theatre have chosen Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, the first play in the repertoire of a Russian literary great. Set in 19th century Russia, the play details the story of turbulent personal relationships mapped onto the background of political upheaval and the fall of feudalism. Fortnight Theatre have chosen an authentic 19th century dress and set in order to complement their naturalistic take on the play.
Jake Goldman, playing Sorin, argues that although he has read other Chekhov plays, this has been the only one he has enjoyed bringing to life, saying “this has been a therapy for me.” What makes it different for him, as well as the rest of the cast, is their ability “to explore the themes more.” The complexities of the characters, as well as the contextual background, are brought out in Chekhov’s deft exploration of such universal themes as love, age, success and money. Wesley Milligan, Director, remarks on the “few love triangles that are going on” and Emma Broadhurst, playing Pauline, adds that “there is an overwhelming feeling that everyone’s in love with the wrong person.” Sarah Cameron, playing Madame Arcadina, says that the theme of age is most pronounced in relation to Sorin, especially his fight against people’s expectations of his behaviour at the end of his life. Tied in with that, adds Millie Blair, playing Nina, is that “people look back and consider how successful they’ve been” in their lives.
Adam Evans, playing Shamreyef, claims that if you view the play as a thematic whole then what you inevitably discover are “analogues between certain characters in different generations”. Those different generations, apart from facing their own slow aging, are confronted with a political zenith. Milligan adds that “social class” is a definite concern within the play and he believes this stems from the fact that “one of Chekhov’s influences was Karl Marx” and you can “judge a society by the social mobility” of its members, just like you can judge the political nature of the play from the personal relationships of the characters.
The status of women comes is one of the main concerns of the play, as men are the ones who drive and then control the action. What stops the women all becoming a stereotype of each other, according to Blair, is that “the women in this play are all really varied.” Specifically she says that “Madame Arcadina encompasses every character” as much as she has a link to each one and even dominance over certain male characters. On the other hand, she says that “Nina and Pauline are definitely not in any position of power.” Broadhurst adds, that her character desires to shed the restrictions of her position as she is “constantly striving for more.”
In terms of bringing the play to life through a creative vision, Milligan has chosen to acknowledge the link that Konstantin Stanislavsky had on Chekhov. He has done this through “character work” and by creating detailed back stories, “trying to deconstruct each character’s psychological makeup”, so much so that he says it’s “more than most other plays do in Durham.” He has not been inspired by any other interpretations of the play; however Katie Cervenak, playing Masha, says she has, but only “to an extent”. There are few arguments that can be made that this is not an independent vision which has been forged by both the cast and crew.
One of the things that has come out of this exhaustive process is that Milligan discovered that although it’s quite “serious and sombre, it’s also funny”, and “Chekhov himself described it as a comedy.” Broadhurst comments that “there are elements of tragi-comedy in it that are poignant” and which bring out “the breadth of human experience.”
The title itself however, remains somewhat of an enigma because of its ambiguous nature. Milligan declines to comment on what he thinks it means, in order to prevent himself imposing his own opinions onto the rest of the cast. Blair says the symbol of the seagull for her is “weighted very much towards Nina” and furthermore her character becomes an embodiment of that story which Trigorin tells her. Cameron talking further about the story in which “the seagull is shot down” says that “every character in the story can relate to it in one way or another”.
And although the world of The Seagull is one in which, according to Cervenak, “no one really says what they’re feeling,” this should not discourage anyone from seeing the play. The production has taken great care to combine, as Milligan says, “the sheer quality of the acting” with the universal and relatable themes behind Chekhov’s works. It is therefore unsurprising that Goldman insists that Chekhov is “so pervasive and so ubiquitous.”
‘The Seagull’ will be shown at The Assembly Rooms Theatre from Thursday, 1st of December until Saturday, 3rd of December at 19:30. Book your tickets here.
Photograph: Fortnight Theatre