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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Modigliani and Chekhov

‘Young girl lives on shore of lake since childhood – like you. Loves the lake – like the seagull. Is happy and free – like the seagull. Then one day a man turns up, sees her, and mindlessly destroys her.’

We’re in London at the moment, at th Royal Academy during the afternoon to see the Modigliani exhibition, and at the Lyttelton Theatre in the evening to see Juliet Stevenson and Ben Whishaw in The Seagull.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy is entitled Modigliani and His Models, and it is exactly that. His models include portraits of the artistic community in Montparnasse; the writer Beatrice Hastings; a series of professional models who sat for the nudes; several peasants and young working men and women from the south of France; the wife of his dealer, Hanka Zborowska; another friend, Lunia Czechowska; and his companion, Jeanne Hébuterne.

The exhibition is a delight and continues until the 15th October.

Juliet Stevenson has said, ‘It’s good to do things that you are scared of.’ In the symbolism of Chekhov’s play the seagull comes to represent lost dreams. And in this version the translator, Martin Crimp, and the director, Katie Mitchell, have combined to cut down the text and reposition parts of the play in an attempt to offer something more and something new to a modern audience.

This, of course, within the spirit of the play . . . as one of the characters insists: We need new forms. New forms are needed, and if we can’t have them, then we had better have nothing at all.

The Seagull centres on the conflicts between four theatrical characters: the ingenue Nina, the fading leading lady Irina Arkadina (Stevenson), her son the experimental playwrite Konstantin Treplyov (Whishaw), and the famous middlebrow story writer Trigorin. Chekhov drew freely on the text and theme of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and at times The Seagull is not unlike a mirror image of Hamlet.

This was a great production, very different to the Jude Kelly version (translated by Tom Stoppard), with Ian McKellan, which we saw at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, I can’t remember when, way back in 1999?

4 Responses to “Modigliani and Chekhov”

  1. AndrewE says:

    Saw the Katie Mitchell production quite a while back, I’d be interested to know what you think.

  2. John Baker says:

    I enjoyed it enormously while it was happening in front of me and, still, in retrospect, I think it was a fine play, well-handled by all the cast. Mitchell and Crimp took enormous liberties with the text, and although I’m uneasy with the idea of doing that, nevertheless, in this instance I thought it worked to everyone’s advantage, including Chekhov’s (though he may not agree, were he still around).
    I thought the ploy of bringing the play-within-a-play forward to the opening act, and the device of showing it to us from ‘behind’ the actors worked well.
    I missed the written-out part of the school-teacher’s marriage, but not a lot.
    And in the last act I thought the lighting was too dim. I wanted to see the actors facial expressions, and though I was sitting quite near to the stage, I couldn’t make them out.
    What more can I say, overall it worked for me. I thought it worked very well indeed.
    But I hope we don’t get a rash of ‘rewritten’ classics in the wake of it. It certainly won’t work everytime.

  3. Cam says:

    I saw Modigliani and His Models in July and was glad that I went. In error, I walked through the exhibit in the wrong direction, so I saw the later works first. In an odd way, I think it made clearer the evolution of Modigliani’s style.

    jb says: Sounds like the way I read magazines, Cam.

  4. Christopher says:

    The main challenge for any production of “The Seagull” is making the characters likeable. While they’re probably & understandably depressed, we should never see them give into it. They struggle mightily, and that’s why we root for them. If a production can accomplish that, “The Seagull” is a moving and memorable play.

    For a fuller treatment/analysis of this play, see:

    jb says: Thanks for the comments, Christopher; and the link to a rather enlightening article.