Andrew Upton’s thoughtful and affecting adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull traverses ideas of art, ambition, passion and change. By Cassie Tongue.

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of The Seagull

Harry Greenwood and Sigrid Thornton in The Seagull.
Harry Greenwood and Sigrid Thornton in The Seagull.
Credit: Prudence Upton

Constantine (Harry Greenwood) – a young artist staging an experimental work at his uncle’s country estate in The Seagull – wants to remake theatre. Currently, he declares, it’s merely a vehicle for convention and prejudice: like his mother, the renowned actor Irina Arkadina (Sigrid Thornton), it’s shallow. If theatre is to be meaningful, he says, we must give it a new form.

Constantine’s views are tangled up in his complicated feelings towards his mother and his particular social milieu, but has there ever been a point in history where artists don’t feel a kinship with his longing? We get stuck in ruts. Commercial theatre rests on its laurels as new ideas turn into packaged convention. There is always a new form waiting to break out – and this restlessness is how we evolve.

Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull was itself once a demonstration of a new form. After a bumpy beginning – its first production was heckled by the audience and panned by critics – the play ushered forth a symbolist-informed, early-realist shift in storytelling that would shape modern Western drama for generations.

Contemporary adaptations play an interesting role in theatre’s journey of making, unmaking and remaking itself. Andrew Upton, who wrote this adaptation, has long been committed to unearthing the connections between past and present in his work. His project of updating Russian theatrical classics for contemporary Australian audiences has grown increasingly complex, from the elegantly written and staged Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky to a smouldering, punk-inflected take on Chekhov’s early work Platonov, renamed The Present, which transferred to Broadway.

In these earlier adaptations, Upton was in conversation with the plays themselves – stress-testing each text to find its resonance now. Finally he is bringing this process to The Seagull, where art, ambition, passion and progress intersect. It’s an opportunity to examine the ideas in Upton’s body of work through a narrowed lens.

Upton’s Seagull, directed by Imara Savage, is transported from 1896 Russia to Australia in the early 2000s. The country estate is now on the mid-north coast of New South Wales and the artistic rut that Constantine is rejecting – pulled from Upton’s own experiences making work in Australia – is one the audience might remember. But how do you make change alone? Constantine’s only collaborator is a neighbour, Nina (Mabel Li), with whom he is desperately in love. She is much more pragmatic about finding her way towards art than Constantine. She stars in the production Constantine is staging on the estate for an audience of locals and artists – notably Irina and her lover, the novelist Boris (Toby Schmitz) – and attracts Boris’s notice.

This play-within-a-play is reimagined here as an avant-garde sound installation performance art piece (created by composer and sound designer Max Lyandvert). Placed in David Fleischer’s diorama-driven set and outlined by a shaky timber proscenium on a rickety outdoor stage, it is a striking image of disruption – one of the best in this production. The art doesn’t quite fit its stage; the characters don’t quite fit the setting. It’s a fine approach for a modern Seagull, a play in which emotions are at odds with action, where discontent, hope and thwarted dreams rattle against each other to create a sense of restlessness, longing and active loss.

Upton isn’t afraid of Chekhov’s comedy and one of Savage’s greatest directorial strengths is giving a punchline its sharpest possible bite. Their partnership is on full display when Boris – infatuated with Nina, compulsively a writer but exhausted by his art – exhales a description of his life. He lists the pursuit of fame, attention and adoration; the seduction and exhaustion of notoriety; his need to write; the fruitless search for satisfaction through lovers, parties and achingly perfect syntax. He is the worst man at an art party. To Nina, he’s irresistible.

The Seagull withholds – the biggest plot developments occur offstage – and so does Upton’s adaptation. Characters creep up to the edge of insight, only to abandon it or back away. Savage, too, keeps the production low-key, but there is a clear sense of purpose in how she positions her players in each scene. Their points of view emerge slowly. Masha (Megan Wilding), the farmer’s daughter who begins the play in black because she’s “in mourning for her life”, marries the man she knows won’t make her happy. Polly (Brigid Zengeni), her mother, did the same. While the men are just as discontented as the women – Sean O’Shea’s Peter, wonderfully, wears his missed opportunities like a heart on his sleeve – it’s the women who see their situations with the most clarity. In this production, the only person to push through brutal self-questioning and find some way to live with it is Nina.

Perhaps the best moment of this new Seagull is in the final act, when Nina returns to the estate in a winter storm. Constantine is still deeply depressed and longing for Nina, but his image of her – a lovely, innocent ingenue – is dead and buried: Nina is a working artist now. In Li’s performance, grounded in a radiating steadfastness and certainty, there’s a light that sets her apart from her fellow characters. She is deeply changed by her lost child, her affair with Boris and her work, but she is also the most self-aware person on the estate, and she knows it. She no longer belongs there.

This production, however, is likely to be best remembered not for its take on Chekhov but for the controversy that erupted after Greenwood, Wilding and Li wore keffiyehs during curtain call on opening night, in solidarity with the devastating loss of Palestinian life during the Israel–Hamas war.

The actors have been pilloried by conservative media and petitions have circulated that support and condemn the move. A performance was cancelled and three foundation board members resigned. Critics said such gestures had no place in theatre. But, in fact, statements about real-world events or fundraising for social causes are not uncommon during theatrical curtain calls, when a play is over and the artists become themselves again.

After all, the world doesn’t stop when a play starts. Chekhov himself – a physician who was the grandson of a serf – was deeply invested in social change. He advocated for prison reform and travelled widely to provide medical treatment to the most vulnerable of people. It’s a relief to see the legacy of working towards the dignity and humanity of the disenfranchised is as alive in today’s artists as it was in Chekhov. In the context of Upton and Savage’s thoughtful, affecting work, the gesture feels more than apt. It feels necessary.

The Seagull is playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, until December 16.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "Making it new".

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