Every critic knows what mediocrity feels like. The best critics are often minor artists themselves, who having failed to enter the hall of fame, appoint themselves its gate-keepers. Criticism isn’t a science – nor an art – but something like a religion of anoraks and wine-spitters. The critic worships genius: something we haven’t experienced, but feel sure we could point out to you. We exist, ostensibly, to satisfy the demands of a society so determined to rate everything that even funeral parlours get Google reviews. Our religion has one sin – compassion. Time after time we find ourselves at openings dodging artists desperate for a bit of exposure for their pair of Y-fronts nailed to a wall. I strongly suspect that there is a special circle of hell reserved for critics, between ticket inspectors and driving examiners.

This brings us to me lounging about during the interval of Front Foot Theatre’s production of The Seagull, staring down the barrel of another one-hour act. The Seagull is a seminal work of Anton Chekhov’s set on a Russian country estate in the late 19th century. Lacking a conventional plot arc, it was met with bemusement by audiences until revived by the Moscow Art Theatre, who used Stanislavski’s teachings to give it an inner life.

It begins with Konstantin, a highly-strung young man, putting on a play in front of his famous actress mother, Arkadina, and her lover Trigorin, a writer of equal renown. The failure of this naïve play ultimately leads to the demise of Konstantin’s relationship with the ambitious Nina. Beneath this skeletal plot Chekhov weaves the inner lives of his characters with a doctor’s steady hand.

…a form of acting based around instinct that can go horribly wrong…

It could be argued that The Seagull is about disappointment. The failure of Konstantin and Nina’s dreams are contrasted with Arkadina and Trigorin who, having achieved them, find their lives empty, while all around them a cast of finely-drawn characters reflects the theme of how quietly our hopes are dashed to pieces.

Unfortunately, this production is a crushing disappointment. The director, Sebastien Blanc, and his cast are versed in the Meisner technique, a form of acting based around instinct that can go horribly wrong when not counterbalanced by other acting disciplines. There was, however, something moving about watching a group of bad actors act out Konstantin’s little play.

…What ensued was more a display of acting than an interpretation of Chekhov…

I noticed that many of the cast graduated from the Actor’s Temple, a Meisner school that focuses on the intra-personal relationships of its students in a manner that borders on cult. On Front Foot Theatre’s website, the producer talks of ‘concentrating on what’s going on between the characters rather than what they are talking about’. What ensued was more a display of acting than an interpretation of Chekhov. Each scene turned into a frenzy of emotion, forgetting the script’s setting: “Oh, what can be duller than this darling country dullness is!” Fortunately, composer Chris Roe’s lyrical music and set designer Joana Dias’ subtle use of space evoked the stillness of the play.

The characters, apart from the classically-trained Louise Templeton’s Arkadina, were simply empty mouthpieces for each actor to show their range, and the entire cast was in floods of tears throughout. Konstantin, who Chekhov parallels with Hamlet in the play, is played by Kim Hardy like the worst kind of Hamlet: imagine a man clutching his head while saying “to be or not to be” and you have it. Poor old Trigorin, who is meant to be one of the best writers of his age, but is turned into a sniggering fop: the sixty-year old Sorin is played as a doddering old man. The performances could be summarised by Hamlet’s complaint: “O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters!”

…You don’t need my review to know what the play was like…

So there I was at the interval, considering my exit strategy. But then I felt that dreaded emotion – compassion. I couldn’t leave an empty seat. I sat through the rest, which was like watching people doing bad impressions of your friends, and yet there was something in the rawness of it all that goes beyond a star rating. You don’t need my review to know what the play was like. There are always mistakes in fringe theatre, but it is alive and it is real, and like Konstantin’s play every production is a labour of love. Fringe theatre needs you, much more than the stuff Time Out endorses. Go and fill up the seats of this little play. Ignore the acting, and listen to Chekhov’s beautiful language that speaks to us about mediocrity, failure, and the compassion that binds us.

The Seagull runs until the 22 December.




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