Monday, May 28, 2018

The Seagull: Desecrated Drama, Fake Cinema

Saoirse Ronan and Corey Stoll in Michael Mayer's film adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull. (Photo: IMDB)

Of the four Chekhov masterpieces – The SeagullUncle Vanya,Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard – the earliest,The Seagull, seems to be the hardest to pull off. For years I thought the toughest challenge was the last one, The Cherry Orchard, because it has the most abrupt tonal shifts and because in a few odd places the playwright stretches his usual naturalism toward something else – symbolism, perhaps, though not the way Ibsen infuses realism with symbolism in parts of The Wild Duck. (I’m thinking especially of the unsettling sound effect in the second act of The Cherry Orchard, the dissonant chord of the stringed instrument the characters hear in the distance as they sit in the wood.) But I’ve been fortunate to see a couple of superb productions in the last few years, one at the Shaw Festival in Ontario and one at the National Theatre in London. The Seagull continues to fox directors, though it’s such an appealing play, with its two generations of bohemians and its tragic young lovers, that it’s easy to see why people are determined to stage it – to figure out how to get past the obstacles, like the overstated symbolism of the dead bird and the way Chekhov fast-forwards two years between the third and fourth acts. And it’s not as though it never works.

The new movie version, directed by Michael Mayer, is so misbegotten that, if you love the play, you’re likely to spend much of the film’s running time (about ninety-five minutes) shaking your head, or perhaps burying it in your hands. Mayer has done some excellent work on the stage, but he’s a relative novice as a filmmaker, and he doesn’t appear to have any idea how to get the kind of effects on camera that he can get live. So he busies himself trying to make everything “cinematic” – with the predictable result that this Seagull feels "stagy" in a way that it never would in a theatre. And he has an accomplice, the American playwright Stephen Karam (The Humans), who tinkers with the dialogue, adding lines and deleting other (important) ones and moving around blocks of text, as if it didn’t matter whether you messed with Chekhov’s ineffable rhythms. The film begins just before act four, with the famous actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening) being fetched from Moscow to the country with her equally celebrated novelist lover Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) because her brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) is dying. It offers an abridged version of the first half of the fourth act, building to the moment when Nina (Saiorse Ronan) taps on the window of the drawing room of Sorin’s country estate and Irina’s son, the young fiction writer Konstantin Treplev (Billy Howle), still hopelessly in love with Nina after all this time even though she left him for Trigorin, hears her. Nina is now an actress laboring unsuccessfully in the provinces; her affair with Trigorin ended following the death of their illegitimate child and he returned to his old liaison with Arkadina. At that point the movie swings back to the beginning of act one. Does the newly acquired frame add anything? Not that I could see. Is there some concept that justifies it? Not that I could find. I would have thought that Andre Gregory and Louis Malle’s spellbinding 1994 Vanya on 42nd Street, which films a rehearsal of Uncle Vanya, had banished forever the notion that you have to justify making a movie of one of these Chekhov plays by imposing some kind of cinematic structure on it. Evidently Mayer and Karam didn’t get the memo.

This Seagull is a primer on how not to film Chekhov. A couple of the filmmakers’ inventions in the first act manage to avoid cutting across the grain of the play: I liked a shot of Nina transfixed by souvenirs of Arkadina’s triumphs on the walls, and Mayer shoots her first exchange with Trigorin with the two of them alone, until Arkadina, her radar working overtime, sails in and interrupts them. But by the second act it’s clear that the movie has gone dramatically wrong. Instead of finding ways to evoke the summer mood, with its lingering heat and its sometimes exasperating, sometimes intoxicating ennui, Mayer turns speeches (like Irina’s claim that continual activity keeps her young) into montages, with lines delivered in different settings and different gowns. (Ann Roth designed the lovely costumes.) I thought of the way Joshua Logan in Camelot filmed Franco Nero’s “C’est Moi” number as a montage, so that the same song accompanied Lancelot all the way from Joyous Gard in France to Camelot – but that was a movie-musical gag, and a pretty good one. The same idea used here makes Irina not just self-absorbed (which she is) but foolish (which she’s not); it also makes Mayer look like he’s desperate to convince us that we’re watching a movie and not a play. Instead of shooting the marvelous scene between Trigorin and Nina, where he deglamorizes the life of a famous writer, in one chunk, Mayer intercuts it with Treplev playing the piano in a stormy snit so we’ll see how jealous he is that she prefers Trigorin’s company – as if the scene where he throws the seagull at her feet and his subsequent suicide attempt didn’t make his feelings abundantly clear. Then Mayer cuts away before the end of Trigorin’s line about the story he plans to write using the seagull as a symbol for a young woman abandoned by a careless lover – you know, the line that explains the title of the play and foreshadows his relationship with Nina. In its place we get the blood from Treplev’s gunshot wound spraying the window of his bedroom. At that point you start to wonder if Mayer and Karam have taken idiot pills. They even cut the end of the play.

Considering how much damage the combination of the screenplay and the direction do to Chekhov, it’s amazing that any of the actors come through, but four of them do. As Nina, Saiorse Ronan has the fragility of a summer flower rather than the life force with which, in their separate ways, Vanessa Redgrave (in the 1968 Sidney Lumet film) and Blythe Danner (in the 1974 version televised on PBS’s Theater in America anthology series) infused the role. Ronan seems younger than either of these actresses – in her early twenties (she’s twenty-four now, but The Seagull has been in the can for at least two years) she still looks like a teenager – so Nina’s fixation on Trigorin comes across as touchingly adolescent and we feel protective of her, acutely conscious of her inexperience as, at the end of act three, she opts to plunge herself into the Moscow arts world and into a love affair with one of its brightest lights. When she returns in the last act, she has clearly been marked by tragedy but she doesn’t seem older, and her insistence that she has persevered and that she has faith in herself is obviously an empty one, even before she hears Trigorin’s voice in the next room and blurts out her confession that she has never stopped loving him, that she loves him even more than before. It’s as if she were holding onto a sinking raft. The shattered, fevered Nina of the final act breaks your heart. At the other end of the spectrum is Bening’s supremely confident, charismatic Arkadina, an embodiment of what, aside from talent and skill – both of which Nina reportedly lacks – an actress would need to have in order to survive a life in the theatre in turn-of-the-century Russia. Perhaps without intending to, Mayer makes a number of choices that undercut Arkadina, like having her sing a gypsy song badly to entertain the others after protesting that she’s in poor voice, and then proclaim with delight that she sounded quite good. (Arkadina is undeniably vain, but she’s also too canny to put herself in an unfavorable light.) But Bening is so well cast and so effortlessly comfortable in the part that anything that might weaken another performer simply rolls off her back.

Annette Bening as Arkadina with Jon Tenney's Dr. Dorn in The Seagull. (Photo: IMDB)

Dennehy is marvelous as Sorin, the retired state councilor whose fondness for the good life and especially for his sister and his nephew keep him cheery and philosophical despite his disappointment at the way his life has turned out. Dennehy keeps the character right on the cusp between regretful and life-embracing: he shifts delicately between them in a subtle, prismatic way that seems just right for Chekhov’s impressionistic rendering of character. His reading of the speech about the story someone should write about him – “The Man Who Wanted To” – toward the end of the picture is especially accomplished. In the third act Sorin begs his sister to give Treplev some money, and when she refuses, absurdly professing near-poverty, the text has him back-pedal, assuring her that he honors and respects her and believes her excuses. But instead of caving in to her, Dennehy’s Sorin reads the lines sarcastically, which gives the scene the bite of an authentic sibling quarrel and lends Sorin an unexpected strength. And in the often sidelined role of Polina, the wife of the estate manager Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler) and the long-time lover of the handsome Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney), the superb Mare Winningham reveals tender layers of insecurity. She’s particularly affecting in the fourth act when, seeing herself in her daughter Masha (Elisabeth Moss), who is suffering from an unrequited love for Treplev, she begs him to treat her with a little kindness.

Tenney hasn’t made a strong character choice for the doctor, and neither Fleshler nor Michael Zegen as the schoolmaster Medvedenko, who pines after Masha, is given a chance to make much of an impression. On the other hand, Moss makes too much of one, though it’s not her fault. She’s the real victim of Mayer’s terrible direction – he trains his camera on her mercilessly whether she’s chasing pathetically after Konstantin or taking her bitterness out on the schoolteacher, and in Karam’s adaptation there are extra dollops of both. Moss is normally understated; here she comes across like a junior Melissa Leo. (That’s not a compliment.) Billy Howle is a colorless Treplev, but since I’ve only seen him in small roles before this I can’t guess whether he’s miscast or poorly directed or simply out of his depth. (He and Ronan also co-star in the new film of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, but I haven’t caught it yet.) Corey Stoll, an actor I admire, may not be cast right: he seems too calculated for the passive Trigorin, who – certainly as James Mason played it in the Lumet film and as I saw Alan Bates and Brian Bedford play it on stage – is impulsive and easily distracted rather than cruel. Stoll does have one terrific scene, where he pleads with Arkadina to let him go so he can pursue Nina, and Bening partners him brilliantly.

Reviewing the Lumet version half a century ago, Pauline Kael wrote, that, terrible as it was, it was still a movie of The Seagull. And that’s why, even apart from the quality of Redgrave and Mason’s performances, you can still watch it; almost everyone else in it has at least a couple of good scenes, and the beauty of the play comes through despite all its wrongheadness, which begins with the fact that Lumet is a transparently wrong choice to handle the material. Lumet was famously sloppy much of the time but he was a movie director, and it was clear that the reason he wanted to put this play on screen was that he loved it so much. Mayer is hopeless behind the camera, you can’t figure out what he thinks about the play, and Karam seems to think he can improve on Chekhov. As it happens I don’t much care for Karam’s own plays, but even a great playwright couldn’t do that, and his arrogance in believing he can poisons the entire enterprise. In some essential way this isn’t a movie of The Seagull but an assault on it.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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