Last summer, I watched Jamie Lloyd’s haunting production of Chekhov’s The Seagull from the sweaty upper balcony of London’s Harold Pinter Theatre. On a stage housing only chairs, Emilia Clarke and a supporting cast of British actors spent two hours motionlessly whispering into body mics. The production was brilliant for its total commitment to abstraction — since it was so clearly not meant to be understood on a literal level, I felt free to give up on interpretation and let the language wash over me.
By contrast, Daniel Brooks’ Soulpepper production of the play, now playing after a three year pandemic delay, revels in specificity. Brooks defines setting with laser precision: though the whole show is set at the same lakeside estate, each of Chekhov’s four acts — here divided in two by a single intermission — feel distinct in tone and place. The result: an amorphous, ever-changing torrent of information that’s excitingly tough to pin down. While Lloyd’s production invited you to sit back and relax, Brooks’ demands you lean forward and parse through its striking shifts. This call-to-action makes for an engrossingly challenging theatrical experience — and the accrued momentum of these many shifts lends the play’s fourth act, which deals with change as a central theme, a huge amount of emotional resonance.
The plot is notoriously digression-ridden. At its heart are two young wannabe thespians, the precocious writer Konstantin (Paolo Santalucia) and the carefree actress Nina (Hailey Gillis). Both have an adult they desperately seek attention from: for Konstantin, it’s his condescending mother, a famous actress named Irina (Michelle Monteith); and for Nina, it’s Irina’s boyfriend, the insecure writer Boris Trigorin (Raoul Bhaneja). A host of secondary characters join them in the play’s primary activity: dropping hot takes on the joys and pains of artmaking and lifeliving.
One of those secondary characters, the jumpsuited janitor Jacob (Dan Mousseau), starts off the show with humour. In the middle of preparations for a play that Konstantin and Nina are putting on, he turns to the audience and makes a display of turning off his iPhone. This breaking of the fourth wall is a joke, but it turns out to be par for the course: throughout, translator-adaptor Simon Stephens’ version of Chekhov’s story takes care to underline the characters’ relationship to the theatre, and Brooks deepens this focus with varyingly subtle metatheatrical gestures — mostly through Jacob, who does things like point out prop food to the audience.
This metatheatricality duets nicely with Shannon Lea Doyle’s constantly shifting set. In act one, for instance, Konstatin’s play includes a sign that says “LAKE.” This seems like an appropriately Brechtian gesture for a young writer-director in search of “new forms,” but there’s a catch: the sign is not on the makeshift stage Konstantin has set up for his performance, but on the translucent plastic sheet that covers the back wall of the stage. And the artificial look of the sheet — which contrasts Snezana Pesic’s realistic contemporary costumes — indicates that it’s part of the world of the theatre, not the play. So Konstantin being able to access it signals that there may be significant slippage between the two planes.
The transition to Chekhov’s act two confirms this. A heavy metal apparatus with three audience-facing stage lights descends from the sky, and a blast of warm light (designed by Jason Hand) blisters forward. A spotlight cheekily isolates a plastic flamingo, Irina lays a towel on the ground, and we’re at the beach. This is a big, theatrical, change — appropriate for a scene in which Irina proclaims that “performance matters.”
Act three, however, stands out for its realistic look. A domestic overhead light hangs down from the ceiling, a dingy, diegetic light source to contrast the giant rod of lights which just invaded the space moments before. Though it’s a common move to have a show gradually become less realistic and more theatrical over its runtime, in many ways the opposite happens here.
But it’s act four, which takes place two years after act three, that ushers in the most drastic change. After the cast pelts a couple bowls’ worth of fruit at the plastic wall, a second plastic sheet shimmies down from the ceiling, cutting off the back half of the stage. This huge loss of playing space parallels the loss of joy that Nina talks about in this act: “Do you remember what it was like before, Konstantin? It was good, wasn’t it? Our lives were so bright and they were warm and full of joy.” In Lloyd’s U.K. production, these claims seemed far-fetched: since the production was so theatrically stagnant, it was difficult to share Nina’s view that things had drastically altered. But Brooks’ version thoroughly puts us through the wringer of change before this point, and so Nina’s claims are not just believable, but serve as deeply resonant parallels to the journey we as audience members have gone on.
The production’s rendering of Nina and Konstanin further fleshes out this shift. In the first act, when Nina’s life is “so bright… and full of joy,” Gillis exaggerates her childishness. She giggles endlessly, speaks at a rapid fire clip, and speeds around on a scooter. By the fourth act, however, her movement and speech both slow down significantly. Though only two years have passed, Gillis makes it feel like many more.
Santalucia’s eccentric Konstantin has a similar arc. At first, he’s a flighty fellow, excitedly dashing around and punctuating his rambling indictments of theatrical convention with impressions of the people he mocks. When he quotes Hamlet to Irina, he’s less like the Dane and more like the socially inept, wannabe-comedian protagonist of The King of Comedy. By act four, though, he appears unrecognizably broken, crumpled and sobbing from the depths of his soul. It’s a startlingly complex characterization, and a roof-shaking performance that anchors the show.
But while Nina and Konstantin change dramatically over the course of the play, the older characters remain fairly stagnant. Things change in their lives between acts three and four, but these changes do not manifest themselves as strongly in the actors’ body language. The older characters therefore emerge as the show’s bedrock, the baseline against which we can measure the ever-shifting tides of the youngsters.
In his director’s note, Brooks claims that “Chekhov is inclined to uncover meaning that already exists in our human interdependence.” By constantly shifting, his gorgeously layered Seagull invites us to continually reexamine the play’s complex web of characters, leading us towards a better understanding of the vast ocean of meaning underpinning their relationships.
The Seagull runs at Soulpepper through April 30. Tickets are available here.