Michael Sparks (Dr Yevgeny Dorn) James McMahon (Boris Trigorin) Karen Vickery (Irina Arkadina) in Seagull photo by Jane DuongAnton Chekhov’s masterwork has survived countless productions and translations since it was first produced in 1896 in a production which failed so badly that Chekhov was convinced that he should give up writing plays.

It was not until Moscow Art Theatre director, Konstantin Stanislavski convinced Chekhov to allow him to produce The Seagull that the merits of the play were revealed and it has become a staple for theatre companies around the world.

Chekhov devotee, Karen Vickery, has named her theatre company, Chaika Theatre, after this play, (Chaika being the Russian word for Seagull) and has taken advantage of the unique possibilities offered by the historic Causeway Hall, to write her own translation of the play and produce this innovative, site-specific production for which she is the assistant director and designer, as well as starring as the aging actress, Irina Arkadina.

Vickery’s translation moves the action into the present day. The first two acts, originally set in the gardens of an estate in Ukraine, are performed outdoors, under the tall trees surrounding the Causeway Hall. Gas heaters and thoughtfully provided blankets, keep the audience cosy despite the crispness of a perfect Canberra Autumn night.

The audience then move into the Causeway Hall, which with the addition of some well-chosen antique furniture provides a handsome environment as the interior of the estate in which the events of the second act take place.

The play commences with Masha Shamrayev (Meaghan Stewart) and Semyon Medvedenko (Cameron Thomas) busily setting up a makeshift theatre for the forthcoming performance of Konstantin Treplyov’s (Joel Horwood) play-within-the-play in which the leading role will be played by Nina Zarechnaya (Natasha Vickery) with whom Konstantin is in love, but who has ambitions of becoming an actress.

Other guests arrive, but Konstantin is too distracted to pay much attention to them as he is nervous about how his mother, famed actress Irina Arkadina (Karen Vickery) will respond to both his play and Nina. Eventually Irina arrives with her young lover, Boris Trigorin (James McMahon). Nina and Boris are immediately attracted to each other. Predictably Irina laughs at Konstantin’s play, describing it as incomprehensible and ridiculous, causing Konstantin to storm off in a rage.

Although the central focus of the play is essentially on the relationships between Konstantin, his mother Irina, the budding actress Nina and Irina’s lover Boris Trigorin, the first act also sets up a series of other romantic relationships.

Seagull photo by Jane DuongAlthough Semyon is in love with Masha, the daughter of the estate manager’s Ilya Shamrayev (Arran McKenna) and his wife Polina Shamrayev (Amy Kowalczuk), Masha is in love with Konstantin, who is in love with Nina. However Nina falls for Irina’s lover, Boris, and  Polina is having an affair with Dr. Yevgeny Dorn (Michael Sparks).

Normally these relationships can be difficult to keep up with. However the clarity of Vickery’s modern language translation, the stripped-back, atmospheric production which places the emphasis squarely on Chekhov’s writing, and the tightly focussed direction by Caitlin Baker, result in a compelling, often riveting narrative.

The actors wear modern day clothes with clever understated references to the original Ukrainian setting. They speak in everyday language without any attempt at accents. Even though the words they speak are clearly modern, with occasional clunky contemporary references, the thoughts they express are unmistakably Chekhov’s, so that the arguments the characters engage in about theatre, love, ageing and death, fascinate by how little human thinking has changed over nearly 130 years.

Karen Vickery offers a tour-de-force performance as Irina Arkadina. Self-aware, seductive and wilfully destructive, Irina reveals her motherly instincts only fleetingly as she bandages Konstantin’s head wound. As Irina Vickery dominates the stage in every scene in which she appears.

Excellent performances abound in this production. Matching Vickery’s performance, Joel Horwood’s depiction of Konstantin, Irina’s desperately unhappy son, driven to desperation by his mother’s refusal to recognise his talent, and his frustration at this own inadequacies, is simply riveting.

Meaghan Stewart’s depiction of Masha as a tightly wound, unhinged young woman deliberately engaging in self-destructive behaviour because of her unrequited love for Konstantin, is as unsettling as it is brilliantly delivered.

Natasha Vickery as the giggly, Nina Zarechnaya, the object of Konstantin’s affections, who, costumed in glittering silver sequins in Konstantin’s play, captures the heart of Irina’s compliant lover, Boris Trigorin; James McMahon as Trigorin; Arran McKenna, seething with passive/aggressive menace as Ilya Shamrayev; Amy Kowalczuk as his outwardly calm but inwardly terrified wife, Polina; Michael Sparks as Konstantin’s only champion, Dr Yevgeny Dorn, Neil McLeod as the aged Pyotr Sorin; and Cameron Thomas as Masha’s despised fiancé, Semyon Medvedenko, all offer carefully delineated characterisations in an excellent ensemble cast.

For anyone who’s previously considered Chekhov’s plays dense or dreary, this clever, thoughtful and decidedly entertaining production of Chekhov’s enduring romcom, is guaranteed to convert you. For those already aware of the power of Chekhov’s writing this is a production which could prove a revelation.

ACTHUB at Causeway Hall, 14 Spinifex Street, Kingston (Canberra)
Performance: Wednesday 10 April 2024
Season continues to 24 April 2024
Information and Bookings:

Images: Michael Sparks (Dr Yevgeny Dorn), James McMahon (Boris Trigorin) and Karen Vickery (Irina Arkadina) in Seagull – photo by Jane Duong | Amy Kowalczuk (Polina Shamrayev), Meaghan Stewart (Masha Shamrayev), Michael Sparks (Dr. Yevgeny Dorn) and Cameron Thomas (Semyon Medvedenko) in Seagull – photo by Jane Duong

Review: Bill Stephens OAM