You’ve chosen to set The Seagull in 1916 at some point during WW1. The obvious question is why? What is it about the era- political, social or otherwise, that you think helps draw out the main themes in Chekhov’s 2nd major work?
The whole WWI thing started as an idea we were throwing around on paper. Then the more we delved, the better it seemed to work – it gave some fire to all the little dramas, backstories, and conflicts; upped the stakes. I suppose the fact that it’s the time period that unites the themes of art and intergenerational conflict, perhaps more than any other in British history, that makes it such a prime candidate to tell this story. On the one hand you have the innovative younger generation of war poets starting to question decades of militarist ideology; on the other, the people who are making a living from the recruitment machine. Wilfred Owen’s 1914 poem ‘The Parable of The Old Man And The Young’, which we found doing research, sums up this dynamic perfectly. Transposing Chekhov by a country and 19 years meant Sorin’s not just an undefined ‘retired state councillor’, he’s an ex-member of the foreign office who is just realising that his life’s work has been to start the greatest war the world has ever seen. Trigorin’s not just a random successful author, he writes propaganda novels for the government (a thing that, terrifyingly, happened at the time – even Arthur Conan Doyle started writing stories about Sherlock Holmes fighting the Germans).
Two of our characters actually go off to fight during the two-year gap between Acts III and IV as well. So I guess there are social & political dimensions – I liked that the period gave us a way to showcase ordinary people at their most pathetic and most sociopathic, most human and inhuman, which I think is what Chekhov needs really. Mainly, I bought it into rehearsal because it gave the actors some meat to tear into.
We’ve seen some imaginative new stagings of Chekhov recently. The ones that stick in my head are Benedict Andrew’s Three Sisters (not that recent!) at the Young Vic and Katie Mitchell and Simon Stephen’s The Cherry Orchard also at the YV, which felt incredibly modern. How radical does your version of The Seagull get, even if it were not set in WW1?
I’d have to say probably more radical than Katie Mitchell’s The Cherry Orchard in some ways – notably with the restructuring and flashbacks (more on that later). Katie Mitchell’s production had a big effect on me and we follow that style in some ways, particularly in terms of the adaptation (characters say ‘fuck’ a lot, and we slash long speeches to bits).Some of the exact text we use was generated through a devising process of improvising around Chekhov’s scenes until we found the bits that fitted and the language which suited the time period, which I suppose is quite radical, though it shouldn’t be.
We know there’s going to be flashbacks, something you have not hidden from the audience. Even though flashbacks are a very early literary device, because of cinema we still seem to think of it as relatively new- I’ve noticed young people especially tend to do this. Why are you using it- is there an appeal to a cinematic audience, or an appeal to be cinematic or, again without giving too much away, other thought processes at work?
I guess we partly use it because it’s part of everyone’s (and my) cultural horizons (I won’t take my love for Memento out of the equation). But it’s so much harder to pull off flashbacks in low-budget fringe theatre – you can’t hide behind fade-cuts and on-screen text! It’s a fun challenge. Companies like Gecko and Theatre Ad Infinitum are finding endlessly inventive ways to use the performer’s body to take audiences on a journey through time, so I guess there’s an influence from that quarter.
I liked the idea of taking a device we’re familiar with, like flashbacks, and making it somehow unfamiliar. And I guess that goes for Chekhov too – if you think you know The Seagull, you ain’t seen it like this!
Before we settled on the whole flashbacks-restructuring concept, I’d been involved in rehearsals for about 4 weeks. I used that as R&D time to work through and improvise around some of the scenes with the actors, see where they were at with the characters, what their instinctive reactions were. The concept really arose in response to the creative offers they were making and the stories they were telling me; it seemed like the best way to draw everything together and accentuated what they were already doing. Same goes for the WWI resetting.
This is also something that’s deeply embedded in the text – the amount of references to memory and past time in the play is unbelievable.
War is a game. The characters in your production sit around a table playing a game. But then they also play games with each other. How did you arrive at the idea that the characters would play a game specifically, as opposed to what happens in The Seagull, i.e that Treplev is putting on a play? Is Theatre a game also?
All three Big Ideas – war-game, board-game, theatre-game – definitely intersect. Playfulness is a perfect storm of harmony and competition. Our point – if there is a point – is that they’re all implied in each other. Without the game, in our production, the memories would never have surfaced and the show would never have happened. It’s also about who’s in your play-circle, and who gets isolated, I suppose, which is how wars happen.
We all know that Chekhov collaborated closely with Stanislavski. What’s your approach to the style of acting here?
It’s certainly rooted in Stanislavski and a preoccupation with intention, time, place, physical score, etc. While doing this project I also got really interested in the idea, in the writings of people like Lecoq, Gaulier, and Peter Brook, that theatremaking is rooted in playfulness and game-playing, which is partly where the game stuff (see above) came from. We’ve dabbled a little along the way in techniques of emotional recall too, as well as in Laban’s movement teaching. It’s also a uniquely international and diverse group, so you could say there’s been some Peter Brook influence there too.
You mentioned that you have a movement director, Jude Evans and she seems pretty integral to this particular production. How important is movement here and what is it trying to do or show? How does its implementation tell us more about character for instance?
With the production’s shifts in time between present and past worlds being so central, it meant we needed a way to make these clearly defined. We employed movement to help us do this, firstly, through expanding and thus increasing the immediacy of the lotto game in the present world, and, secondly, by creating memory-laden, photographic transitions which could take us from one time place to another. Inspiration came from all sorts of different media: music, paintings, photographs, films. Movement also played a critical role in the development of Charlotte Campbell’s Nina. We drew on the field of animal studies and delved into the realm of seagulls (living, dying and dead – maybe just a little morbid). Working with Charlotte, we broke down the characteristics, behaviour and environment of seagulls. Fascinating discoveries were made relating to the upper body. Lots of tools from Laban to Viewpoints and other practices were brought to bear, and together created a rich toolbox and animal-human lanuage for Charlotte to draw upon. From this work, Nina’s physical, emotional and psychological qualities became altogether richer.
We are living in a world where cuts to the arts, globally, not just in the UK, seems to be a huge governmental trend, with even David Lynch taking a swipe at the ‘pathetic-ness of it’. Yet at the same time, the arts and various institutions are expected to pay more and be more inclusive but without more financial support. Do you think this production of The Seagull, charting as it does, Nina’s attempt to become an actress, has anything to say about this? What can it tell us about surviving and adapting?
I’d say Nina’s journey has more to say about star culture then arts cuts. In our production, she gets fucked over by the British war propaganda machine, which is pretty much the same as our mainstream cultural machine in many ways. It’s about accepted and unaccepted circles as well, and the way the arts creates self-perpetuating enclaves while casting others out to the lunatic fringe.
What does The Seagull tell us about belonging (if it does!)? I’m thinking about Treplev here and his need to be accepted as a playwright in his own right and not just as a child of famous actors. It seems to be there is always a conflict with artists, especially writers, as they potentially exist in a state of loneliness and yet need to be championed. I was wondering about this in relation to The Seagull and art and the position of artists today and what The Seagull can teach us.
It’s definitely about belonging – made more so in this production because Constantine is trying to have everyone like his play, while still trying to preach an unpopular message about the war, then he has to go and join up and write war poetry in the trenches. The Seagull, to me, says you have to suffer for your art and you always will – you can’t have your cake and eat it. It extends beyond the artists as well – if the play only spoke to people in its own industry it wouldn’t be much of a play! The whole thing’s about ten people trying desperately not to be rejected by the others, often unsuccessfully.
Chekhov was committed to ‘creating drama among people in the words they spoke and not in the acts they committed onstage’. How far do you honour this, if at all, and how important is it to adhere to the writer’s artistic integrity when reimagining classical plays?
I’d say that more important to this production was Stanislavski’s dictum that if you took the words out of the scene but could still tell a clear story to the audience using the physical score, you had done your job. (Stanislavski was a physical theatre director whom history has enshrined as a naturalistic director.) I would find it very difficult to create drama without integrating the acts onstage! We also have a number of silent physicalised sequences, which Chekhov would probably hate. Although everyone knows Chekhov now, so there’s a need to tear him up a bit. I think you should adhere to a dead writer’s intentions insofar as it’s useful to your production; if something isn’t useful, get rid of it.
Tell us more about Acting Gymnasium!
The Acting Gym is a company of performers, some new talent, some old hands, run by award-winning director Gavin McAlinden. It meets for regular workshops every Saturday across about six months, which then crystallise into a rep season of productions running alternate nights, of which The Seagull is one. The others in this season are Three Sisters and Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.
The Seagull, in a new version by Justin Murray is at Theatro Technis from 13th April
Justin Murray has trained extensively through the Young Vic Directors Program and is Artistic Director of new production company Catharsis Theatre. He has worked as an assistant director on midscale touring productions including Actors of Dionysus’ Helen, directed by Jonathan Young.