Life, etc

Chekhov for the 21st century: The Seagull as toxic, rude and brilliant satire on middle-class indulgence

By Marianne Thamm 21 October 2015

Playwright and theatre producer Saartjie Botha's Afrikaans translation of The Seagull, Chekhov's claustrophobic and brilliant comic ablation of middle-class neurosis, narcissism and pretension (among other issues), takes the text by scruff of the neck and shakes out the comedy and farce from the tragedy and melodrama. The result, Die Seemeeu, performed by a dream cast of veteran and young South African actors, and directed with astounding precision by Christiaan Olwagen, is as close to a perfect stage production as you are likely to see. If we had the South African equivalent of Broadway or the West End, there would be queues around the block. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Director Christiaan Olwagen’s stage design for the Afrikaans version of Chekhov’s anti-dramatic comedy masterpiece in four acts and which takes place in a bucolic summertime setting next to a lake, visually conjures one of those little tourist snow shakers with a complete serene and picturesque landscape hermetically trapped within the transparent sphere.

The backdrop here is a massive artwork of a pristine alpine scene featuring two deer mounted in an ostentatious gilded frame. Fanning out from this centrepiece are two rows of perfect fir trees. The symbolism of the deer and the snow shaker are just two of the delightfully subtle layers that Olwagen, 2015 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, has created around this scintillating production of The Seagull, one of Chekhov’s major plays, written in 1895. It is little wonder that this production has already raked in several awards.

The deer, of course, is an animal with peculiar eyesight. With its protruding eyes located on the side of its head, it has a field vision of 310 degrees while humans only have an 180-degree field. The deer, in other words, sees more than we do and so does Chekhov. And we too, in the audience, see more than the characters trapped in the bubble on the stage.

Because beneath the veneer and the apparently static, realistic drama, a love quadrangle slowly unfolds on the stage, that is a psychological minefield with turbulent and ultimately life-shattering currents.

Each of Chekhov’s skillfully drawn characters – the vain and self-absorbed theatre diva Irina Arkadina (Sandra Prinsloo); the ailing and ageing Sorin (Marius Weyers) who is also Irina’s brother and on whose estate they have all gathered; the naïve actress Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya (Rolanda Marais); the gloomy alcoholic dope smoker Masha (Cintaine Schutte); the self-doubting, insecure, lovelorn playwright Konstantin Treplyov (Albert Pretorius); the cheerful encourager of Konstantin and witness to the drama Dr Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn (Gerben Kamper); the brash farm manager, Ilya Afanasyevich Shamrayev (Deon Lotz); his long suffering wife Paulina Andryevna (Martelize Kolver); the puppy dog, poverty-stricken teacher Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko (Geon Nel); and the real famous writer Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin (Alyzzander Fourie), who is also Arkadina’s young lover – grapple with inner fears, longings, doubts, regrets, recriminations and miseries. All of them, of course, of their own making.

The rendering of their internal worlds requires from each of the cast members performances of such subtlety and precision that they can do nothing but completely embody this collection of bourgeois, self-absorbed neurotics. And for three hours they hold the audience totally captivated. Not a single gesture, movement across the stage or tilt of a head is wasted. There is nothing superfluous in this production. Each prop, each light, each costume change brings with it more of what cannot be seen from inside the story.

This translation by playwright and theatre producer Saartjie Botha teases out the comedy Chekhov intended this piece to be. And while it may be in colloquial Afrikaans with lots of “ag fokoffs”, it is a drama that transcends its time, geography and setting. If you have to search for a local political touchpoint, then it might be about a group of people who all face an uncertain future, apart from one, the central character, the moping, mommy’s boy Konstantin Treplyov, who commits suicide in the final act. Botha’s magnificent translation lifts Chekhov into the 21st century. The language is literary, rude, hilarious and adds something new to a text theatre-lovers know only too well.

While Chekhov deals with themes of celebrity, its decline and the desperate measures those who were once famous will go to to delude themselves, it is also about the fear of growing older, the fear of failure and the devastating collateral damage of being raised by self-centred parents. In the piece, Chekhov offers no opinion or point of view, per say, but lays bare the ennui and petty and vapid existential concerns of the middle classes.

This is also a play about theatre itself. There is Konstantin’s silly experimental play-within-a-play that sets off the action and which brings the characters together on the estate. This theme in the text circles constantly like a seagull, with Chekhov also drawing on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It is also, of course, a drama and comedy about life itself in which we all mostly go out wearing masks and playing our parts.

The character Kontantin, while he is paralysed with self-doubt, is the only one in the play who is able to think outside of only himself. It is Konstantin who, while tragically infatuated with the young actress Nina, contemplates the world outside of the claustrophobic snow shaker. And in the end Chekhov kills him off because the reality of it all is too much. As an actor, Pretorius always surprises and he embodies his Konstantin, whom Olwagen has wear a Speedo on stage at one point, with a tender blend of brat and tortured poet.

Veteran stage shape-shifters Prinsloo and Weyers are an absolute treat to watch, bringing to their characters an authenticity and depth so that you cannot believe they cease to exist when these great actors step off the stage afterwards.

This is an ensemble piece and each of the 10 actors are at the top of their game. Olwagen works them hard and they in turn deliver a type of theatre that pays homage to the magic of the stage and what can happen there – for three hours with a short interval. The soundscape too by Charl Johan Lingenfelder is as much as a feature of this production as the text, the lighting, the costumes and the set, and it all comes together in a piece of theatre the likes of which we do not get to see that often. This is a viciously funny production with many aspects that will linger with you long after you have left the theatre. The Afrikaans is accessible to those who fear they might not understand it all and the Baxter will snap the switch for surtitles if you really, really don’t understand it. Die Seemeeu is on at the Baxter Theatre until 31 October. Make a plan, go see it. DM

Pic: (back row left to right), Martelize Kolver, Deon Lotz, Geon Nel, Rolanda Marais, Gerban Kamper, Cintaine Schutte. (Back Row) Albert Pretorius, Sandra Prinsloo, Alyzzander Fourie, Marius Weyers (Picture supplied)

Gallery

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