It felt like a gift to be able to see a professional production of THE SEAGULL at the same time as I am using the play to teach Michael Chekhov Technique.
Anton Chekhov called his play The Seagull a comedy. And when I went to see Corn Exchange’s updated production in the Dublin Theatre Festival at the Gaiety Theatre the other day I was in no doubt that that was what the creative team had initially gone for. It was light and fun. In addition, the young writer Constantin became Constance, an interesting and effective gender change which immediately updated the text and made the relationships more easy to distinguish. It was easy to see Masha desire a lesbian relationship she could not have and marry Medvedenko, ‘go straight’ and reap the bitter consequences. The two actors playing Constance and Masha seemed to thrive on that decision and it worked well. Sorin was excellent as was Paulina who had a real understanding of tragicomedy especially in a wonderful moment when she ate Nina’s flowers. May I say here that I am not naming the actors, not out of laziness but because this is not a review. I am keen to explore aspects of the play which were thrown up in this production.
So the production made choices; of course it did; that is inevitable. However, choices create consequences. Initially, buying completely into the comedy aspect does create issues, and most prominently in the performance of Arkardina. Arkadina is the queen of the play and therefore the way her role is interpreted is crucial to all the other characters, their own character level and development. In order to have some movement in her character she cannot be portrayed continuously as a mere diva which for me, for the most part, was what was happening. In Act Three she attempted a few moments of sincerity but unfortunately for me it was far too late. For instance arkardinas pleading for Trigorin’s love in an exhibition of superficial campery made not just her character but Trigorin look foolish as well as he agreed to obey her after this insincere display. I kept wondering who had made this decision, the actor or the director. In the play it appears to me, from the opening of Act Two, there is a sense of Arkadina losing control of her world and by the end of Act Three she is fighting to hold on to what she has. That is a progression; that is a journey. I was not looking for a romantic vision of Arkardina, but a more rounded one.
Something that did not help Arkadina was the loss of Shamrayev, the boorish landlord/steward of her property. I wondered whether they had cut the character to save money but it had serious consequences on the structure . In Act One we lose the fact of his toadying to Arkardina, important for her status and for us the audience to empathise with her. More importantly in Act 2 we lost his fight with her, which weakened Arkardina’s power. That argument, and Arkardina’s decision for them to leave marks a turning point in the act, an essential climax. Without it, the production lost its way for a good while.
The danger of over-exploiting the comedy makes the artists (the characters in the play) look like tedious self indulgent fools, which maybe they are, but still.. Do I want to see a play where actors and writers are all made to look like fools? Not really. I have spent my whole life working in theatre and believe in it as a transformative agent for change both personal and sometimes political. Only the character of Constance made me believe that there might be a possibility of truth through art but then things do not end well for her and she kills herself for love. Nina, the other young aspiring artist, just seemed to be a lost and confused child used by the older people. As Constance kills herself, starved of love from all quarters, I needed to get a sense of Nina at least having found something; some purpose, but she seemed lost. So from a structural point of view the play moved from being a fairly trivial suburban comedy to a dark tragedy of unbelievable hopelessness. I did not see sufficient seeds of the dark elements in the early part of the play to really take me on this journey. There was no real feeling of the whole.
So is this play a comedy or a tragedy? And do we need to define it? In a way yes we do, because we need to decide.
Perhaps it is that wonderful thing, a tragicomedy, beloved of Jacobean dramatists? In tragicomedy each element highlights the other. Tragicomedy allows the absurd because there is an understanding that life is absurd. I have worked with tragicomedy myself a good bit, most particularly with my adaptation of Middleton and Rowley’s ‘ THE OLD LAW’, a tragicomic play which explores mass euthanasia as an agent for greed.
But back to Chekhov. Anton Chekhov is a master of this tragicomic genre. In order for tragicomedy to be effective, there needs to be a strong understanding by the director and performers as to when the screws are turned, and the audience are suddenly moved. I felt that control and understanding was missing at the performance I saw.
Someone in class remarked yesterday, mistakenly I believe, that comedy enhances our sympathy, but I don’t think that’s true.It is only true when the performers and director control it. Without that understanding, comedy can be just an excuse to trivialise.
participants in my Chekhov class, Niamh and Ronan, playing Masha and Medvedenko.
So the following day after seeing the performance with my class of Continuers in Michael Chekhov technique we spent a chunk of time exploring this conundrum. I asked each pair and two solo performers to work with their text in a particular style ; as a comedy, a tragedy, or a satire. I discussed Michael Chekhov’s belief that to work in tragedy you imagine something just behind you, and for comedy imagine something in front of you. That sounds strange as I write it but if you try it out with a piece of text, it makes perfect sense. We also discussed satire: the play could easily be seen as a satire against/about self-indulgent artists and we agreed that unlike pure comedy, satire had a particular point. It was not humour for its own sake.
This was a rich mine of exploration. Before embarking on this exercise we worked with a range of radiating/receiving exercises to play with the energy of pauses; to explore the energy of pauses. I did this because, in order to manage the shifts of mood, it required this understanding of the movement of energy that happens.
So we had, from Act 4, a satirical exploration of an over-serious and melodramatic young actress who has come to visit her old lover Constantin. At certain moments, such as when she says, ‘I am an actress’ and she hears Trigorin laughing in the other room, I asked her to change the emotional movement to a tragic one, then gradually ‘turn up’ the satirical element as the scene goes on. This was incredibly moving as the class members suddenly felt that Nina was covering up her grief, even when she eventually returned to her comic satirical delivery. Primarily this focus from comedy, to tragedy or to satire is a change in movement of energy. It is not just a matter of (that much maligned word) style.
Another scene we worked with was the opening scene between Masha and Medvedenko. They played the scene in a serious tragic way. The result was occasionally hilarious. It was edgy and interesting, a potent mix of tragedy and comedy, as was a Trigorin monologue also played as a tragedy.
Finally, we worked with the Act 3 scene between Arkadina and Constantin. I mention this last because it epitomised where tragicomedy is successful. At first the actors found it challenging to make a scene in the intense third act funny , despite lines like,
“You look as if you are wearing a turban. Someone came to the door the other day and didn’t know what nationality you were.”
but gradually they let the comedy take hold. Then, quite naturally, they started to find dark and serious moments within the humour; poignant moments where the arrogant mother could not bear to involve herself in the messiness of her child’s despair and need.
Finding this balance heightened both the ridiculousness of our humanity and the tragedy of it; the subtle shifts of energy heightened both, something Anton Chekhov and some of the 17th century tragicomic dramatists fully understood.