Although I am a determined ignoramus about the script, insisting that devised work is far more vibrant and that the restaging of classic work is often an excuse for lazy direction, I can’t help being fascinated by Chekov. If the recent Corona Classic Cut of The Seagull at Oran Mor demonstrates that the Russian master needs his full length and complement of characters to shine, the production at The Ramshorn Theatre was a reminder that it can be impossible to discover whether the story of artistic aspiration and rural longing is a comedy or a tragedy. Ending with a gunshot, it litters the stage with ruined lives and thwarted ambitions: yet across the acts, it exposes the absurd pomposity that leads to doom.
In much the same way that The Arches fills the niche for a particular kind of performance- young, personal and influenced by Live Art, The Ramshorn has become a standard bearer for straight forward versions of classic scripts: recent productions have included Anouilh’s Antigone and The Libertine. Even their contemporary work emphasises the craft of the playwright and a steady directorial approach. While this isn’t necessarily to my taste, it protects a vital strand of Scottish theatre, and advocates a professionalism that consistently punches above its weight. The annual programme keeps alive the scripts that have fallen from favour elsewhere, presented in a style that is welcoming and respectful of the sources.
The recent Seagull was an excellent example of their craft: a consistently solid cast moved the drama along at a solid pace, focussing on the larger-then-life characterisation and allowing time for the conflicts between youthful iconoclasm and respectable literary success to mature into the brutal finale. The arrogance of the wealthy, the power of unrequited desire, the dangerous allure of glamour are all revealed. Like a Buddhist mandala, The Seagull is an object for meditation. Whether Chekov approves of the staid establishment or the desperate hopes of a new generation desperately struggling to invent new ideas is never clear. Nevertheless, this nineteenth century script, developed with all due attention to convention and sobriety, conjures up the ongoing conflicts between the generations, while nodding towards the absurdist drama of Beckett.
Where Oran Mor’s shortened version lost critical perspectives on the central battle between the famous novelist and his envious, radical rival, Susan Triesman’s direction of the Strathclyde Theatre Group gently exposes the tensions between mother and son, town and country, security and romance. The central image- of the young female artist as a seagull, both free in flight and destroyed almost accidently- is clear and moving, and Michael Frayn’s translation is an unadorned pleasure. Chekov has often been regarded as the pivot between more classical modes of drama and the adventurous explorations of the past century. In modest productions like this, his understanding of human nature is evident, and an important approach to performance is maintained.