Like the themes of unrequited love about The Seagull, there’s something melancholy about the Library Theatre’s final production, and Artistic Director Chris Honer’s last bow after over 20 years at the helm. There’s no doubt that this is a historic and bittersweet performance.
It therefore seems fitting that their final play should go back to the genesis of the company – The Seagull being the first play performed in Manchester Library’s theatre space. Up and coming starlet Anya Reiss has taken and shaped Chekov’s original and given it a more contemporary spin.
This play within a play begins with pretentious playwright Konstantin (Ben Allen) and his naïve girlfriend Nina (Sophie Robinson) performing their somewhat unconventional ‘masterpiece’ – whilst his interfering mother Arkadina (a wonderfully acerbic Susie Trayling) savages nips away at it. But Konstantin’s feelings run deeper than his play – he is madly in love with Nina. But Nina’s feelings for Arkadina’s boyfriend – the author Trigorin are building – the destructive circles of unrequited love and teenage optimism are about to clash with disastrous results.
Graeme Hawley’s understated and bashful author Trigorin is at once inept and manipulative. Skillfully walking a tightrope between bland and brilliant, his quiet intensity burns throughout the play. Sophie Robinson’s wide-eyed fragility becomes nerve-wracking to watch as Ben Allen’s Konstantin falls apart. Elsewhere, Victoria Lloyd gives an intense and superbly ferocious performance as Masha and makes the character (placed into the body of a modern day emo) jump off the stage and come alive – perhaps the only character with a real depth that you could imagine outside the creative world of The Seagull.
The culture clash of the contemporary against the classic unsettled me. There was the nagging sense of having seen something that hadn’t been entirely developed to its potential. Purists will agree with me – this isn’t Chekov – its Chekov drowned in a cacophony of suburbia.
Perhaps this is Reiss’ message though: Ikea furniture, Waitrose food and Marks and Spencer’s clothes make for a very cynical view of the world. Sat in their throughly middle-class ivory tower, the beastliness and contempt that some of these characters dispense without realising it reinforces their narrow-minded scope of the world. As the play goes on, that bubble of pompous self-importance in the name of artistic integrity strains to retain its momentum as the characters continue to become more and more unlikeable despite flashes of sympathy. Of course, real life comes crashing in at the end in a big way – it takes the bemused Doctor Dorn (Christopher Wright) to have to mime what’s happened, such are the knots that Chekov’s characters have tied themselves in.
There is little doubt that The Seagull is an accomplished, if flawed, final bow for one of the North, if not the UK’s leading theatre companies. Chris Honer’s impact on the Manchester theatre scene cannot be understated and The Seagull’s discussion of ‘what is art?’ stand as an appropriate, if bittersweet, exit point for both Honer and the Library Theatre. It’ll be eyes down on HOME in 2015 to see how the Library Theatre’s next incarnation measures up.
Cover photo by Jonathan Keenan.