One of the first things you notice as the curtain comes up on Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of The Seagull is the rifle mounted on the stage. In fact, it is mounted on two stages, because the rifle forms part of the set that the young Constantine (Harry Greenwood, giving an assured performance) has prepared to stage his avant-garde play starring Nina, a young woman with whom he is besotted (Mabel Li, equally assured in probably the most difficult role in the play).
Even if this were not a Chekhov play, his famous aphorism would apply. A gun, particularly one so prominently displayed, must go off before the end. Pre-interval, this production is very funny, but director Imara Savage evokes the creeping sense of dread which, as so often in Chekhov, underlies and belies the comedy.
This is the latest Chekhov adaptation by Andrew Upton, who last adapted Platonov in 2015 (his version was entitled The Present). He has shifted the Russian setting to contemporary-ish Australia, which raises some difficult questions. For example, why does Constantine have a laptop, but no one is able to use a phone? (The answer seems to be that there is no reception.) Why does everyone have a Russian name (though not as Russian as in the original)? (Unclear, although to be fair many of the characters are related.) Minor quibbles aside, the contemporary setting works well. The fact that Constantine’s mother Irina Arkadina (wonderfully played by Sigrid Thornton) is an actress also allows Upton to make some self-referential jokes about contemporary theatre.
Most of the frivolity is sucked out of the play after the intermission as events spiral towards their conclusion. It is a mark of the quality of the performances that the characters are as equally convincing in tragedy as they are in comedy.
Sean O’Shea is very funny as Constantine’s uncle Peter, but the humour he finds in the character does not come at the expense of an appreciation of the aimless emptiness of his life. Megan Wilding, straight from her hilarious turn in The Importance of Being Earnest is equally funny here as Masha, but also gets to show off her aptitude for poignancy. Toby Schmitz is excellent as Irina’s novelist partner Boris.
Despite Thornton’s star billing, The Seagull is really about Constantine and (particularly) Nina. Her story, and Boris’ predatory behaviour towards her, is all too familiar. In telling it, Chekhov’s sensibility feels remarkably modern.
It is one of the reasons why transplanting the plot from 19th century Russia to 21st century Australia works better than you may expect. It is also why Constantine’s ironic criticism of contemporary theatre – that it is all just adaptations of works by dead, white men – is not entirely fair. Sometimes those adaptations are very good.
The Seagull by Anton Chekhov
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company
Adapted by Andrew Upton
Director: Imara Savage
Set Designer: David Fleischer
Costume Designer: Renée Mulder
Lighting Designer: Amelia Lever-Davidson
Composer and Sound Designer: Max Lyandvert
Literal Translator: Marina Lobastov
Assistant Director: Ian Michael
Movement Consultants: Tim Dashwood, Troy Honeysett
Intimacy Coordinator: Chloë Dallimore
Cast: Arka Das, Michael Denkha, Harry Greenwood, Markus Hamilton, Mabel Li, Sean O’Shea, Toby Schmitz, Sigrid Thornton, Megan Wilding, Brigid Zengeni
The Seagull will be performed until 16 December 2023.