How do you take a work that is comfortably described as sociology; accused by some of being a tad dull; premiered as a flop over one hundred years ago before being rebooted and hailed a classic, and make it relevant to today’s crowd?
Supremely cheeky writer/director Daniel Evans fires-up a finely-tuned wit that allows him to successfully tinker with a revered classic, take pot-shots at every demographic in the audience and then prove that it’s nothing personal by saving the biggest dig for himself – the writer of adaptations. The audience walked from the theatre on opening night buzzing about Daniel Evans’ The Seagull (formerly belonging to Chekhov) which continues at the Billie Brown studio until 26 September.
Assembling a brilliant cast of local talent – Jason Klarwein, Barbara Lowing, Brian Lucas, Christen O’Leary, Hugh Parker, Amy Ingram, Lucas Stibbard, Emily Burton, Helen Cassidy and Nicholas Gell – Evans twists Anton Chekhov’s famous play into a slightly new form and it’s a grave understatement to say that it makes an entertaining piece of theatre.
Using Chekhov’s story about a dysfunctional family gathering (and beautifully expanding the role of the titular seagull) as a base from which to explore the notion that all we are, amount to nothing more than unresolved stories told over and over again. Evans deconstructs the work, quite literally when considering the set design which looks like an exploded theatre with set, props, costume, greenroom, stage-hand, and dumpster all in view, using the raised foundations as a starting point on which to build his own walls. Evans lifts the family up and plonks them down in 2015 Australia, a popular choice for rethinking old theatre these days however this is not just “Australia” as you’d expect from the tagline (imaginings of ockering-up characters), but they are placed down among us, those sitting in front of the set – all the world’s a stage. Dementia sufferer, Sorin (Brian Lucas at his delightful best) points out that they (the characters) are pretending the audience is just a lake, as he looks at us bemused at how we are playing along and suggesting that it is the insane that truly see the world for what it is and are brave enough to call it out. Unfolding over the course of four acts is a delicate and humorous undressing of the society around us now (as it probably was in Chekhov’s time) and how we behave and how we think we behave and what affect that has on those we encounter.
The family in question is composed of your classic, tortured artists; At the hands of his mother Irina (O’Leary) – a famous actress at the tale end of her career. Konstantin’s staging of his symbolist play is reduced to a laugh-fest when shown to his family at his ill uncle Lucas’ estate. Konstantine and his mother have a complicated adult relationship (which can be said for all her relationships), as she struggles to accept her fate for which he desperately wants to rub her face in it. Irina’s lover, famous novelist Boris Trigorin (played with deep, heartfelt conflict by Klarwein) joins the family and becomes the third corner of Konstantin’s angst. Trigorin, the epitome of the suffering wordsmith, discovers inspiration in Konstantin’s love and Trigorin fan-girl Nina (Burton) who launches her own undoing by becoming entangled with and emptied by the novelist. Trigorin beautifully describes the predatory nature of the writer in a hard-hitting scene with Nina and then goes about enacting what he has just described (as if knowing what he does excuses it). The fourth and shit-gets-real act unleashes a dark scene between Konstantin and the spoiled Nina speaking to all that innocence lost by young girls seeking the path to the stars by catching a lift on the wrong rocket.
Spiralling furiously into the outer orbit of all this is Masha (most brilliantly played by Amy Ingram) who is tortured by her unreturned love for Konstantin and repulsed by loyal Medvedenko’s (Lucas Stibbard) unshakable love for her. Poor Medvendenko being the only decent one of the lot of them. Ingram undoubtedly gives the performance of the evening when Masha devastatingly predicts her very disappointing future even as she is right in the middle of resisting it. Ingram plays Masha six feet out in front of her face; she is brash, nasty and tarty and so brutally honest you can’t help but feel sick for her and her unavoidable annihilation – the living death is the worst of them all.
Not surprisingly, with the cast attached to this production, the evening is seamlessly high quality entertainment but Evan’s ability as a writer and as a subtle agitator is really what impresses. It’s a rare quality to possess such a wit that can be inflammatory and reassuring at the same time. If you listen carefully you may even hear a nod or two to the creative clashes of Brisbane’s bright young creative things.