Volcano, Swansea, Thurs 16 April
In a letter to his friend Aleksey Suvorin in 1895 Anton Chekhov introduced his new play The Seagull: “It’s a comedy… four acts, landscapes with a view over a lake, a great deal of conversation about literature, very little action, tons of love.”
Volcano’s astonishing, visceral interpretation of Chekhov’s classic play captures the sense of disillusionment that pervades the text whilst offering a powerful, physically inventive adaptation of its key themes and ideas.
The actors climb beams and walls, swing on ropes suspended from the ceiling, engage in wrestling matches and move around the space in a kinetic blur that makes one breathless just watching them, with a dazzling coup de théâtre that occurs midway through the action and opens the space up into completely new territory.
The decision to use just five of the nine characters from Chekhov’s play leads to a pared down adaptation that focuses on the doubling of writer/actor that lies at the centre of the drama. Christopher Elson plays the pretentious and gauche Konstantin, dressed as a mini-Hamlet all in black, preoccupied with attempts to write a new form of theatre whilst his mother Irina mocks his work and his love for Nina goes unrequited. Neal McWilliams is Trigorin, strutting around the space with the natural arrogance of the successful and famous writer, spending his time indolently fishing and leeching ideas for his next story.
Joanna Simpkins plays the ingénue Nina with coltish exuberance, Konstantin’s unreciprocated desire contrasted with her wonderfully manipulative seduction of Trigorin. Mairi Phillips puts the Oedipal into Irina, a force of maternal nature who bulldozes through everything and everyone. Her dismissive line, “I haven’t read a single thing he’s written’’, enforces the sense that Konstantin’s despair isn’t founded in Nina’s rejection but his mother’s callous indifference to him as a human being.
Completing the cast is Gethin Alderman as Dr Dorn, a powerfully muscular presence who barks out some of his lines in Russian and observes the romantic mishaps with wry detachment.
The cast work brilliantly as an ensemble whilst the direction by Paul Davies takes key scenes or moments from each act and builds the production around these sections. It’s a clever approach in adapting a play where the major events take place off stage.
In Chekhov’s play everyday trivial existence is contrasted with the emotional complexity of the love triangles, so that there is a gradual accumulation of sub-textual cause and effect. Volcano get round that problem by removing subtext from the action entirely – characters collide, clash and physically embody the emotions swirling around the text, as Irina convinces Trigorin to stay with her by literally opening her legs to him. Without wanting to give too much of the surprise away, the set design by Camilla Clarke is a visual treat from start to finish.
My only slight disappointment is that some of the characters left out of the adaptation – Medviedenko the penniless schoolteacher, the lovelorn Masha, the feckless Sorin – would have made fascinating additions to the Volcano mix. ‘Chekhovian’ it is not. What the great man himself would have made of it is anyone’s guess, but I hope, like me, he would have found its sheer theatrical audacity and visual beauty a joy to watch.
words ALEX WREN photo ERIN RICKARD
Seagulls, Volcano Theatre, Swansea, until Sat 2 May. Tickets: £13/ £6 conc. Info: www.volcanotheatre.co.uk