Konstantin Stanislavski’s production of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898 is one of the most important events in theatre history. Theatre as we know it today – and perhaps film and television too – owes a great debt to the play, paving as it did the way for developments in naturalism. No subsequent production of the play will live up to the reputation of that vital performance in Russia at the end of the 19th century, and yet its universal truths about love, jealousy and art keep filling theatres time and time again. But its translation to film comes with mixed results.
It’s a hot Russian summer and famous actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening) is visiting the country estate of her brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy), with her lover, the renowned writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) in tow. Her son Konstantin (Billy Howle) is putting on a play for an audience of family and friends, featuring Nina (Saorise Ronan), an aspiring actress with whom he is madly in love. But the repercussions of the performance will affect all of them for the rest of their lives.
Director Michael Mayer – clearly aware of the difficulty of adapting plays for the screen – does his best to make sure the film looks cinematic. The scenes on the lake with Trigorin and Nina are particularly good, with point-of-view close-ups keeping the action intimate. Matthew J. Lloyd’s cinematography captures the beauty of the characters’ surroundings even as they struggle internally. Mayer, however, doesn’t quite manage to keep the tone even; Chekhov may have written the play as a comedy, but it is sometimes unclear how much we should be laughing at the characters.
In performance, Chekhov’s play lasts approximately two-and-a-half hours, including an interval. Tony Award-winning playwright Stephen Karam’s adaptation is a brisk 98 minutes. This condensing of the action does the film few favours. The two years between acts three and four are vitally important, but on film we don’t feel the passing of time as acutely as in the theatre, and consequently the final scenes don’t have the weight they should. On stage, the slow build-up to the play’s end comes with a mounting sense of dread, even – or perhaps especially – if you know what’s coming. Here, however, it is somewhat rushed and therefore packs less of a punch. Karam’s screenplay also eschews the play’s closing line, for me one of the most iconic lines in theatre.
The cast is largely impressive. For me, Trigorin has always been a difficult character to pin down, but Stoll still makes us believe in him regardless. Howle and Bening portray their characters’ toxic mother-son relationship very convincingly, but the real standout is Elisabeth Moss as Masha. She is bleakly funny in the role, as well as making us care deeply about her unrequited love for Konstantin.
In 1898, Konstantin’s monologue to Sorin about the need for new art forms probably felt hugely radical. Although it is a shame that Mayer’s film lacks so much of that impact, the genius of Chekhov’s work shines through.
The Seagull is out in UK cinemas on the 7th September, 2018.
Words by Logan Jones @LoganOnFilm
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