24/06/2015 07:08 BST | Updated 23/06/2016 06:59 BST

Theatre Review: The Seagull at Regent's Park. Monday June 22 2015


I always thought that was a good word to express frustration. In my own abortive attempt to adapt The Cherry Orchard, "Bollocks" is the opening line, said by Dunyasha when failing to light a candle next to an open window. But Torben Betts beat me to it. He has got his "Bollocks" into Chekhov first. Critics of his new adaptation of The Seagull will probably say he has gone too far, that, while entertaining, the play is simply not Chekhov. They would be wrong, of course, but it's a close run thing.

This year marks the 120th anniversary of Chekhov's tract on failure. It has always been my favourite of his plays. Easily the most beautiful and tragic. Academics do not include The Seagull in the bracket of Chekhov's mature works. It doesn't quite have the specialist hallmarks, largely due to the protagonist actually carrying something out, which provides the terrible, moving ending. I have long railed against theatre companies who refuse to play Chekhov for laughs and instead opt for an ill conceived 'mood piece' due to some kind of misplaced reverence and inaccurate judgement on the Russian character. With The Seagull, however, I have always found it desperately sad and couldn't see a way to find a balance.

An aspiring dramaturg (Mathew Tennyson's fascinatingly mannered Konstantin) torn between wanting to show the world his new philosophy of the theatre and wanting attention and respect from his self-absorbed actress mother (Janie Dee's deplorable yet majestic Irina), lives on the rural end of the town/country dialectic with an estate full of impossible dreams underscored by the tinnitus-like buzz of the question "How and why do we live?"

Directed by Matthew Dunster and given a stunning panoramic setting by Jon Bausor which added a filmic vastness to many key scenes, Betts' audacious version is by turns harrowing and hilarious, eliciting screams of joy from a good-humoured audience who were clearly grateful that the only rain they saw was on the stage.

But so brilliant were the performances and the comic timing, I felt on occasions the pay off was to lose a little of the impact of the tragic elements, the audience having been directed to treat much of the suffering with levity. Chekhov ridicules his characters but not incessantly. Yes, he shows bourgeois frivolity as laughably irresponsible and the insecurities of a theatrical diva thinly veiled by egotism, but he recognises frustration and stagnation as the real enemy to living and that's still powerful.

In Chekhov, the characters to talk past each other, all living the insular life, crippled by their own not so private struggles. In this production, that element is writ large. There is, at times, rather more invention than adaptation but the defence of this is in the intention. The spirit of any additions is utterly faithful to the dramatist's approach. The exchange between Ilia the farm manager and Peter Sorin is brand new, and particularly funny, largely due to former state councillor's rather enlivening resemblance in tone to the great James Robertson Justice. The voiced thought technique is also something I have not seen done in Chekhov before, but it totally works, and as discussed, the modern language is perfectly in keeping for an adaptation but some may argue that frustration is given more of an outlet than Chekhov would have liked. Not for me, though. These people who largely have no life were given more life than I have ever seen. The energy of their despair was electric.

To a man the cast was superb, and this is a show yet to properly bed-in. I will go again towards the end of the run to see if they've got even slicker, but what I saw last night will be difficult to top.

In short, the Regent's Park Seagull is a masterpiece. It has guts, it has soul and it has a bravura performance from Lisa Diveney as Masha who, I'm sure, would have thrown up when the bombshell hit had it not already been done at the Queen's Theatre in 1985.

Benedict Nightingale said of the National Theatre's 1992 production of Uncle Vanya that "Chekhov had come of age in England". It has taken a further 23 years to properly find its sense of humour.