Here is a question regarding Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull I got yesterday from a young director.
Question : Regarding Nina, do you think there is the possibility for her to be a bit…delusional or lying to herself? She’s clearly still insanely in love with Trigorin, like Treplev (Constantin) she’s the romantic, total type (with all the abysses associated) and I just can’t get it out of my head how that seagull is still there, but stuffed with chemicals and not really alive. I know it’s bleak , but I kind of get troubled when I face so much optimism coming from Mr. C, especially when I compare it with the endings of the rest of his plays.
Answer : I saw Nina like that at one time too. but if we consider that, like Life, a whole play has polarities, forces pulling us this way and that, and the presence of these polarities are what makes it moving and full, then, right now, if I was directing the play, I would like Nina ultimately to be positive; not in a dreamy sort of way; in a realistic way. She has clearly had a dreadful time, but she is still determined; she is still wrestling with what has happened to her, but she is ‘taking it on’, her past, and her journey. So of course to some extent she may be lying to herself as you suggest, but she is surviving and her compromises seem to be worth it for her art. That is what keeps her going. As with lots of young actors, Nina’s force might not last. She may well become completely disillusioned, but right now, the candle is still burning for her. She is one positive force in what is ultimately a grim end for the play .
You can never really isolate the character from the play ; the actors can’t do it, and nor of course can the director. We have to see Nina as part of the bigger picture. Michael Chekhov said you have to look at the impact of the whole play upon the audience. What as the director, do you want them to take away from the experience? Nina being realistic but determined does not unbalance the play at all, in fact the opposite. Let’s imagine the actor and director took the choice you are suggesting. She ends up delusional. She ends up hopeless. She ends up a victim, and an audience might construe that Constantin kills himself precisely because she is in such a state. People have taken that route a lot in productions I have seen and you come out of the play thinking, ‘so what?’ She deludes herself and C kills himself. Masha and Medvedenko live with the consequences of their compromises. It’s grim.
However, if we look at how the main characters treat ‘their calling’ then Nina’s outlook has to be an attempt to fuse youthful idealism and love of your art against all the odds. In terms of polarities, her artistic fervour and determination pulls away from the egocentric and rather cynical bent of Trigorin and Arkadina and the disillusioned Constantin. Nina offers us a slim hope, which may be only fleeting in her life, that you can survive as an artist and it can sustain you through everything . I would like to see that in my performance of the Seagull because it would give me a feeling of wholeness watching it, because I have known that struggle and that idealism as a young actor, and I have known the compromises of life and the reality of trying to survive in a ruthless business which is also an art.
It may be naive of me to ask for this in a production but I am looking for wholeness. I am so determined that more directors learn the Michael Chekhov technique, because the more the work is applied by directors as well as performers, the more sense of wholeness there will be and the richer the offering we will make towards the audience.
Later on today, after I published this piece, someone write a comment and said we had to be open to different Ninas in performance. I wholeheartedly agreed – here’s what I replied, with a little further embellishment.
I am not saying that there is a definitive way [to play the role] either… it depends on the production and of course the chemistry of the actors. But then there are many many ways the actress playing Nina could explore a determined and positive conclusion in a myriad of ways and in varying degrees. There is still tons of scope there. However I do think that if Nina is ultimately despairing and hopeless, and that could be a path of course, I have to consider how would it make me feel as an audience member. It would, along with the other characters’ stories in the play, make me feel incredibly depressed! Why? Because it would be telling me in the audience that Art is only despair, disappointment and superficiality; that actors are fools. Does the play really say that? I think not. Do I want the audience to feel that?
No, I don’t.
Chekhov Training and Performance Ireland’s Continuers course which runs for 6 consecutive Sundays from next week begins next Sunday here in Galway.