Jamie Lloyd is a genius. There I've said it. How else would you describe a director who has his cast seated for most of the play while giving understated performances that somehow manage to amp up the emotion to 11 on the dial?
In fact, the performances are so understated it makes previous productions of The Seagull I've seen seem brash and showy. There is no hand-wringing and sweeping gestures, swooping onto the stage or storming off. It's the opposite: contained, subtle and still, and that supercharges the feelings and subtext.
You can almost hear the inner monologue of the characters.
It's a blank plywood stage with green plastic chairs of the type you get in community centres and church halls. Conversations are mostly pitched at 'private' and 'casual' making it an almost voyeuristic watching experience.
Hanging on every word
You don't need huffs and sighs and characters flopping around to indicate lethargy and boredom it is in their stillness and subtle movement. And that stillness sharpens the focus on what is being said. You hang on every word.
Occasionally there are bursts of energy but it somehow magnifies the subtle emotions of the quiet conversations.
Anya Reiss' modern adaptation makes the play feel completely at home in the 21st century: Carriages have become Land Rovers and Jeeps and Trigorin tells Nina to call his agent.
The conversations between Arkadina (Indira Varma) and her son Konstantin (Daniel Monks) about modern vs traditional theatre take on an extra resonance.
In having the performances dialled down rather than up, Jamie Lloyd reveals a different side to these well-worn characters.
Konstantin can be played as a ball of angry frustration to the point of child-like tantrum. But there is none of that here. In the scene where Arkadina tramples all over Konstantin's attempts to write and be creative, Monk sits quietly with his head hanging down. His posture radiates pain, hurt and despair.
Enough of a spark
And Emilia Clark's Nina is a bundle of innocent sunshine in the first half but it is quietly sweet with gentle smiles and laughs. It is enough of a spark to ignite everyone's love for her.
When she returns in the second half you can see the fight to hold on to delicate sunlight. There isn't bitterness but she has become more contemplative, she worn and it's heartbreaking.
Her final conversation with Konstatin is devastating to watch. It's a rare moment of physical closeness in the play. They share a chair and at times hold each other or rest a head on a shoulder. There is no angst and drama, no pacing, no shouting just two people somehow united, yet miles apart.
Casting Tom Rhys Harries as a youthful Trigorin is another genius move on Jamie Lloyd's part. In previous productions, Trigorin tends to be played full of charisma and faux humbleness.
Flummoxed by fame
Harries is vulnerable, and rather than pretentious self-deprecation, he feels like someone flummoxed by fame. With his youth and looks, you can easily imagine the intensity of the fans in the internet age. He seems genuinely plagued by self-doubt.
It makes his betrayal of Nina later in the play all the more stark.
This is The Seagull as a tragic love story turned up to the max. I loved this production (can you tell). It opened up new avenues in what is a familiar play and took a fresh approach to what you'd expect to see on a big West End stage.
No surprise then that I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
PS The story of The Seagull is one I know well, and I do wonder whether this production relies a little on that familiarity. Interested to know what you think if you are a newbie to the play and have seen this production.
The Seagull, Harold Pinter Theatre
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Adapted by Anya Reiss
Running time: 2 and a half hours including an interval but this was a preview so that might change.
Booking until 10 September, see the ATG website for more details and to buy tickets.