Seagull flies traditional path

Leila George, Greta Scacchi and Ben Mortley in The Seagull. Picture: Gary Marsh


The Seagull

By Anton Chekhov (adapted by Hilary Bell)

3.5 stars

Black Swan State Theatre Company

Heath Ledger Theatre


This remounting of The Seagull, Anton Chekhov's great first play, owes much to a modest, approachable adaptation by Hilary Bell, effectively executed by its director, Kate Cherry.

Bell, who has no Russian, has interpreted several of a century's worth of English translations of the play - if this sounds like "adaptation by committee", Bell seems to be happy to live, and Cherry to work, with it.

The result stays loyal to its roots - we remain by a Russian lake, not in an Australian beach house or a Long Island estate. The characters speak in their own accents but traditional representations of the Russian idiom remain. They are dressed by the designer Fiona Bruce as fin de siecle Russia, and her set, a stripped-down proscenium, is like many that have housed the play in the past 120 years.

So this Seagull is not spectacular, or edgy, but it is handsome and approachable. If it's something of a museum piece, that's not the worst charge that can be levelled at a work of its significance in theatre history.

The Seagull is the story of a family and its attendants where the money, the horses - and love - are neither enough nor given freely. Madame Arkadina (Greta Scacchi), a famous actress, tips the staff at her brother Sorin's (Michael Loney) estate one rouble, though we know she has 70,000 in the bank. There is no carriage for her to take to town, because the estate manager, Shamrayev (Greg McNeill), won't release its horses from their work in the fields.

But it's love that's mostly withheld and given conditionally, and love these people most need. A teacher, Medvedenko (Adam Booth), loves Shamrayev's daughter, Masha (Rebecca Davis). Masha, though, has her heart set on Arkadina's brittle son Konstantin (Luke McMahon), who, in turn, loves the daughter of the neighbouring estate, Nina (Leila George).

Arkadina arrives with her lover, Trigorin, a successful and admired author, and he complicates matters by seducing Nina.

It sounds like the comedy Chekhov claimed it was but it can't end happily. As Trigorin, contemplating a seagull that Konstantin has shot and presented to Nina, warns her in a moment of sadistic prescience: "Story idea. Girl who's grown up on this lake, like you. Then one day a man comes along and, for want of anything better to do, destroys her - like this bird."

He's right, and she's not the only one.

The performances are good throughout, highlighted by a fine professional debut by George. She's inherited the gift of beauty from her mother, Scacchi (who makes an effective return to the Perth stage 23 years after her famous A Doll's House) but George has got plenty of chops of her own. She works Nina's girlish giggle through 360 degrees of emotion with precision in a performance of real promise.

Best of all is Davis' Masha. She achieves a metamorphosis into the repressed, hunched Masha without overstatement, and knowing what an arresting, erect actor she can be adds a layer of meaning to her performance, and the production.

These are people who could and should be better, and happier, than they are. Davis here exactly represents what Chekhov is telling us about them, and it's that which gives this revival its rewards.

'The Seagull runs until August 31.'