With two weeks until the Oxford Playhouse opening of Chekhov’s The Seagull, director Chloe Wicks is giving line readings in rehearsals. The line reading, probably the biggest no-no for a director, takes the form of a director stopping the action of the play in rehearsal and saying something like, ‘No, darling—try it more like this…’ and proceeding to say the line in all her directorial wisdom. The general risk associated with this faux-pas is that you put the actor in the impossible situation of trying to replicate the director’s delivery of each line, and in the worst case scenario, leads to general confusion and frustration for all.
However, confusion and frustration are nowhere in sight in the word-perfect run of Act I of Chekhov’s play. Despite the ensemble’s uniform dress in black and the set-less space of the Moser, the play runs as captivatingly as it promises to do on opening night. Laura Nakhla’s embodiment of ageing actress, Arkadina, is utterly convincing in her indulgent laughter and fluttering hand gestures. Henry Faber perfectly evokes the Hamlet-esque melancholy of aspiring playwright Konstantin, and Alfred Enoch’s few lines are enough to convince us that Trigorin is the mysterious and misanthropic writer he is reputed to be. There are still two weeks for final touches to be put on this production. The time would be well spent in helping the character of Medvedenko rely less on the psychological gesture of nervously touching his glasses. And for all of Ruby Thomas’ husky voiced, frustrated sensuality, the character of Masha runs the risk of being a bit too reminiscent of the frustrated sensuality of a certain heroine in a Tennessee Williams play.
But this reviewer must come clean: I have always disliked Chekhov. Having seen various productions by the doctor-turned-playwright, ranging from The Cherry Orchard to Three Sisters, I have a hard time getting past characters that seem to jump effortlessly in and out of self-reflective, philosophical discourse on topics like Art, Russia, and The Past. Maybe things were different in 19th century Russia but when I see Chekhov done it always strikes me that no one is actually listening to each other and yet they seem familiar enough to shout ‘Leave me alone!’ regularly, while running from the room. It is not difficult to make Chekhov awful. But in despite of, or perhaps because of, Chloe Wicks’ line readings, this production has taken characters that I’ve always had a hard time swallowing and made me deeply curious about each and every one of them. I left this preview having to resist the urge to run home and reread The Seagull to remember what happens to Konstantin and Masha, Trigorin and Arkadina. Despite myself, I’ll have to be there at the opening to see and maybe begrudgingly start to appreciate Chekhov after all. And let me assure you, that in itself promises to be a theatrical feat well worth seeing.