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Review: The Seagull at LIPA ****

When Anton Chekhov premiered The Seagull in the autumn of 1896, it bewildered its audience whose loud dismay (they booed and hissed the action) drove its creator to consider giving up writing.

Of course, he didn’t and The Seagull not only endured but opened the door for three more of what are considered to be the Russian’s mature masterpieces.

If the good theatregoers of fin de siècle St Petersburg were flummoxed by this strange new theatrical experience, one wonders what they might make of this current production at LIPA, a stylised new ‘dark and supernatural’ version adapted and directed by head of acting Will Hammond.

It’s certainly an audacious – if occasionally overblown - take on Chehkov’s tragi-comic tale of unrequited love, dashed hopes, thwarted ambition, narcissism, existential agony and destructive power dynamics.

Medvendenko loves Masha who loves Konstantin who loves Nina who is captivated by Trigorin who is in a relationship with Irina who loves…well, certainly herself.

(Obsessive) love is in the febrile air. But then so is self-awareness, self-doubt, self-absorption and self-pity. We all know it’s unlikely to end well, particularly when one protagonist thinks a dead gull makes for a compelling love token.

Nairn Archer’s idealistic teenager Konstantin quotes Hamlet as he eyes his vain mother, the actress Irina Arkadina, draping herself over her literary beau Trigorin, but the whirl of spurned lovers trapped in this claustrophobic countryside ‘idyll’ also conjures up Shakespeare’s Athenian woods. Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Hammond intensifies the comic absurdity at the heart of the first half of Chekhov’s tale and the cast launch themselves into the fray with evident glee.

Above: The Seagull. Top: Alanah Bloor as Nina. Photos by Andrew AB/LIPA

Eleanor Boes has a lot of fun as the nihilistic Masha, while Hugo Worrall charms as the guileless lovelorn teacher Medvendenko (one of the play’s few sympathetic characters) and Alex Kryslur delivers a distinctive Philip Seymour Hoffman vibe to the wistful Sorin.

Alanah Bloor, meanwhile, brings impressive intensity to Nina as she navigates her narrative arc from sunny, idealistic ingenue to a woman beaten down by life which has spun out of her control, screaming ‘I am the seagull’ into the void like a nightmarish Cathy Earnshaw, the delivery also echoing Konstantin’s derided avant-garde play-within-a-play of the first act.

A striking stand of lofty silver birch trunks forms the backbone of Sasha Alexander, Greta Elsie Baxter and Alexandra Gray’s meta set where the lines between on stage and off stage are constantly blurred.

Here a sheet, casually strung-up between the trees, becomes the backdrop for changing scene titles, while elsewhere Hammond opts for some extravagant visual metaphors including Nina’s life unravelling on an increasingly fast treadmill and the spurned Konstantin’s final moments featuring a Kraftwerk video-style of rewinding action made flesh by the ensemble cast.

There were a few technical issues with mics and sound balance on opening night – the background soundscape sometimes frustratingly intrusive.

And it’s true that, like one of Konstantin’s plays, this is an adaptation that won’t be for everyone. But love it or not, you can’t but admire its bold storytelling vision, and the commitment of its talented young cast.

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