National Theatre Live: The Seagull – Film Review

This was a very different trip to the cinema: I went to see a recording of Anton Chekhov’s stage play, filmed at the National Theatre in London and starring a couple of familiar faces including Emilia Clarke.

To be honest, normally I wouldn’t see a point in going to the movies to watch a theatrical performance, but I decided to give this one a chance; after all I happily went to the cinema to watch a live recording of a Roger Waters concert, so why not a recording of a live stage play? Naturally, it was nothing like a real night at the theatre, but I still enjoyed the experience. This radical, starkly minimalist production was certainly striking and memorable, if a little challenging at first.

I wracked my brain trying to remember if I ever studied The Seagull back in my high school Russian Literature classes, but it seems that Chekhov’s play about love and frustrated artistic aspirations didn’t make it on the curriculum. It would have been interesting to compare my memories to the modernised, present-day version I watched, even if it’s obvious that the occasional sprinkling of f-bombs and mentions of phone reception and Batman leave the true Chekhovian core of the play intact.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this production, but I certainly didn’t expect a set resembling the inside of a giant woodchip box, filled with nothing but green plastic chairs that remind you of a school assembly, or a therapy session maybe. After a 20-minute interval, the board walls were partly removed to leave the actors performing against a pitch-black backdrop.

If anyone went into this play hoping for nice 19th-century costumes, they’d be bitterly disappointed by the barefoot cast dressed in deliberately muted and non-descript clothes. Most of the time, the ten actors perform while sitting on the chairs, which are at times re-arranged with the military precision. Sometimes they get up and stand against the walls, or sit on the floor, but their movement overall is minimal. When a character is not present in the scene, the actors eerily still remain seated and motionless in their spots, as if frozen. This soporific effect extends to the monologues, with words often murmured (though still thankfully audible); the actress playing Masha seems to channel a modern moody teenager with her robotic, deadpan line delivery.

None of the above may sound conventionally appealing, but strangely enough, I found this mannered woodchip version of The Seagull quite engaging and compelling, once I got used to its uncompromising aesthetic. The visual drabness seems to somehow enhance the spiritual drabness of the characters’ lives they desperately seek to escape, yearning for a vibrant, fulfilling life that always remains out of reach. I’ve no idea if the previous filmed productions from the National Theatre offered more dynamic camerawork, but the mostly static style employed here, with a few close-ups thrown in to liven things up, works well with the overall artistic vision.

Emilia Clarke is the biggest star and does a fine job as naive, starry-eyed wannabe actress Nina, though I still can’t decide if her supernaturally mobile eyebrows are expressive or just plain distracting. However, Indira Varma (who likewise appeared in Game of Thrones but who’ll forever remain Niobe from Rome for me) steals the show as Arkadina the Actress, who seems to have the most vitality and life out of all characters.

I won’t necessarily be rushing out to see every filmed National Theatre event, but this outing at least cured me from my prejudice against such things.

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