When director Benedict Andrews spoke to the audience before the show to apologise going up 10 minutes late, he should have kept the apologies coming in for what was a travesty of a tragedy. But what is obvious is that Benedict Andrews doesn’t care about his audience- or the play for that matter- because if he did, I can’t imagine he would have presented such a self-indulgent butchering of Chekhov’s work.
I blame ‘War of the Roses’, where the raining glitter and ash, the static performances, spitting blood, flour, sweat and 8 hours of what turned out to be therapy-inducing theatre was so lauded by the critics, Andrews fell under the spell of theatre’s greatest wank. And I firmly believe he thinks he is cutting edge, he is reinventing the theatre, he is breathing life into the classics (like he successfully did with ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’) and those who don’t agree are fossils, poor sad souls trapped in theatre’s past and unable to journey into this new generational funky wave. Dismiss the haters as ignorant traditionalists. It’s ironic, given what ‘The Seagull’ is about, that he feels he is poking fun at us. I’d like to think he is poking fun at himself in there somewhere but I think Andrews spends too much time in his own head. I recommend a holiday, Mr Andrews. Get some sun, a few drinks and a dose of the real world.
Segue way into Belvoir. What are you doing?? I’ll forgive you for the appropriation of Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck’, even if I thought the glass house was a bit much and the re-writing a bit thin because I think you managed to make it work for the most part. I haven’t yet forgiven you for ‘The Business’, where we all learnt that an 80’s soundtrack and retro costumes do not a play make. But this? Where do I start? Is this the result of putting a young man in the artistic director’s chair who is caught up in trying to be clever and naively putting a season together with people who think exactly the same as him and market for an audience exactly the same as him? Where are the voices of contrast? Maybe you should direct your audiences to what you’re doing Downstairs, which is much more interesting, than subject them to what you are doing on the main stage. I’m giving notice now that if you turn ‘Summer of the 17th Doll’ into a play set in a modern cafe in Marrickville, I’m outta there.
I saw this production in the second preview night so maybe it’ll pick up over the season, although reports back from friends who are either leaving at interval or bemoaning the waste of 3 hours may suggest otherwise. The first thing that strikes you is Myers’ set- what can only be described as a trailer park in rural coastal Australia. So let’s address that for a moment. By all means, reinvent the classics, transpose them into a contemporary world, be bold. However, if as a result of this you lose the play, what are you presenting? If you are desperately trying to fit your round piece into a square hole, you’ve lost perspective. Don’t significantly mess with the play if you can’t make it more relevant or a better version of itself. And don’t sell this as ‘The Seagull’. You may as well market this as ‘3 hours of Andrews & Co wanking over Chekhov’. What a waste of a good cast but more of that later.
I should have trusted my instincts after watching the opening scene of Masha engaging in a bucket bong. I missed another opportunity to run out and reclaim my night once they unveiled yet another glass box to represent the theatre (come on Belvoir & Andrews- find a new metaphor), or the neon lights declaring REAL LIFE- when the lights were working. There is some attempt to make this a theatrical device of the pretention of theatre but that only made it more confusing when Andrews actually uses it to remind us in the second half that we are now watching real life. Oh...and let’s not forget the raining black ash to represent the dark winter and dashed dreams? If you’re going to remove the essence of the play and fill it with symbols, and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a Benedict Andrews play without it, can we at least employ something new? But even with all that, Andrews’ complete contempt of the audience by staging almost the entirety of the second half inside the trailer, behind the glass doors, reminding us, I suppose, that we all return to the mundane world of reality after the show, was enough to make me wish I was at home cleaning the mould in the kitchen cupboards.
I was confused by the keeping of the names and the references to returning to Moscow if we’re now in Jindabyne. This was perhaps best highlighted by the choice to present Ilya Shamrayev, played by Terry Serio, as a brutish, esky carrying, Australian stereotype. And I was not alone in my confusion. At interval you could hear a multitude of voices asking their companions to explain what this play was about and I’m not sure that the second half clarified any of that for us. I know Chekhov treads such a fine line between comedy and tragedy. In fact most Russian playwrights walk this road and it’s a brilliant reflection of a harsh landscape, life and culture and times of great upheaval and revolution. Andrews’ play probably does a better job exploring the comedy rather than the tragedy but the production is all over the place. This production is monochrome in its message. Whilst it attempts to hammer home the idea of enduring real life, it has garbled every other complexity of the play and washed it away, sacrificed them to make sure that we all got the idea that real life is hard and boring. I don’t need to go to the theatre for 3 hours to learn that one message, thank you very much. Please refer to the comment on my kitchen mould as evidence of my understanding.
Andrews has cast such a wonderful assembly of some of Australia’s finest- Judy Davis, David Wenham, Billie Brown, Anita Hegh, Terry Serio, John Gaden (although on a personal note, if I see John Gaden in one more show I may poke my eyes out with a blunt stick. Aren’t there any other distinguished older actors apart from Gaden and Peter Carroll that could get a look in?) He has also employed a generally fine young ensemble of actors. Yep. Cast them all and then completely pissed them up the wall on this heartbreaking misinterpretation of what should have been the highlight of the Belvoir season. They did their best to try to make this work but to no avail. I can only imagine how bad it would have been without them. Terrifying.
I wish I could have come out raving about art vs life or about the parallels of Russia in 1901 and Australia in 2011. Instead my hope is that Belvoir stops sending me letters to donate money or bequeath them in my will because I’m feeling my internal organs atrophy as every second of these productions tick by. If you keep producing work like this, I can’t see myself subscribing ever again. Get your hands off it, get someone in to tell you some cold hard truth and start respecting your audience. Andrews says in the program “In Ralph’s first year as Artistic Director, I wanted us to reflect on the task and craft the impetus of theatre-making. What is at stake in the experience?” The answer is simple: your audience.
If you insist on seeing it- and as the season sold out before opening, I’m imagining many of you will-start drinking early and hope for the best. I strongly advise that this will not be a show you will want to sit through once, let alone twice. And if you’d like to skip the whole thing and come over and clean my kitchen cupboards, I could give you the entire Seagull experience in much less time and much cheaper.
It’s your call.