Roslyn Packer Theatre, November 25


This is Chekhov on steroids. The Russian master delighted in poking fun not only at all his characters in The Seagull, but at himself as a writer, too. Andrew Upton’s new adaptation, directed by Imara Savage for Sydney Theatre Company, does so much fun-poking as to render the characters, including Chekhov’s self-deprecating take on the play’s two writers, cartoonish.

Megan Wilding and Arka Das. Top: Toby Schmitz and Megan Wilding. Photos: Prudence Upton.

When I tell you that Upton has set it in contemporary rural Australia, you might be inclined to try to drown yourself in a bucket, but it actually works. All the elements stay true to themselves, and he has sustained the play’s sense timeless mythologising amid the hilarity. The exaggeration of the comedic aspects comes at the cost, however, of Chekhov’s subtlety. Upton has not lost the play’s spirit: it’s just that Chekhov painted his people with such careful shading, while here they’re mostly presented in primary colours.

Nonetheless we delight in this crazed little snapshot of a world where everyone tends to fall in love with the wrong person; where hopes are dashed, and where dreams, when they do come true, turn out to be riddled with disappointment.

Upton has simplified or partially anglicised the characters’ names, so Trigorin, the famed novelist, is now just plain Boris. Not that there’s anything plain about Toby Schmitz’s performance. His torrential Act Two confession/whinge to Nina (Mabel Li) about horrors of being a writer is a highlight. Schmitz is so good bewailing Boris’s life of lust, fishing, fame and writing, telling us that the latter is just sitting at a desk wishing he were elsewhere. It allows him no peace; he can’t switch off. Every person he meets and even each cloud in the sky triggers another possible character or plot. Yet the thought of not being able to write is worse. Schmitz’s performance ensures we laugh at Boris’s pomposity even as we sympathise with his self-loathing, and all the while Li’s Nina compounds the comedy by looking on awestruck that this fabulous writer is unburdening his soul to her.

Toby Schmitz. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Megan Wilding shines as the sexually frustrated, drily embittered Masha, who is so infatuated with Constantine (Harry Greenwood), that upon being roundly rejected once too often, she marries Simon – previously Medviedenko – (Arka Das) to spite herself. It works. Wilding’s gift for comic timing (displayed so recently in The Importance of Being Earnest) is a treasure, and her Act Three scene sharing vodka shots with Schmitz is worth the trip by itself.

Sigrid Thornton storms about the stage as that grand dame of the theatre, Arkadina (now just Irina), enjoying giving orders, belittling everyone (especially her son, the would-be playwright Constantine) and doing her damnedest to keep her claws in her toy-boy, Boris, when his eyes drift toward Nina. Thornton’s performance is amusingly and intentionally over-the-top, rather as if Edina from Absolutely Fabulous were playing the role.

Sigrid Thornton. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Sean O’Shea deserves a shout as a particularly daffy version of Sorin (now just Peter), Markus Hamilton gives us such a cruisy take on the doctor that you’d think his character self-medicates, and Brigid Zengeni once again excels as Polly (previously Polena).

David Fleischer’s appealing set designs frame the action in such a way as  gently reminds, like Upton’s adaptation, that us all the time we’re watching a play, not life, while Max Lyandvert’s music and sound design are so evocative that you can almost smell the fields. It’s all very diverting, but, unlike the original, it somewhat grinds to a halt whenever the laughs dry up.

Until December 16.