“I’m in mourning for my life.” This is the most iconic line from Anton Chekov’s enduring masterpiece. The morose Masha is being partly facetious with this statement, though it does accurately convey her angst, and, more broadly, a great preoccupation with our own mortality as the defining characteristic of the human experience.
This funny, well-known phrase is entirely absent from Simon Stephens’ contemporary adaptation of The Seagull, presented here by Soulpepper. It’s silly to get hung up on such a minor omission; it isn’t particularly important, but it feels to me like a symbol for a deeper absence that kept me from fully investing in director Daniel Brooks’ highly conceptual production.
My love for Chekhov is rooted in qualities this staging doesn’t quite capture. Turn-of-the-century Russia is a foundational aspect of Chekhov. His characters don’t have to be limited to this period, but the mundane minutiae of daily life is vital. To feel grounded enough to care about these relentlessly complaining people, I need to feel the specificity of time and place. The texture and weight of furniture, of clothing, of domestic props—the burden of physical existence!—makes all the carping and moaning relatable, hilarious and heartbreaking.
Brooks and set designer Shannon Lea Doyle have crafted, instead, an allusive, whimsical and self-aware space. The artifice of theatrical presentation—a world of exposed lighting rigs and plastic pink flamingos—is an evocative character here. Most notably, an expanse of translucent plastic sheeting lines the back of the stage. Though it does provide some eerie visuals as characters creep ominously behind it in the play’s gloomy final scenes, I struggled to understand what this alienating device was ultimately meant to convey. The actors frequently throw things at it, drawing our attention to its physical presence, signalling to me ideas of home renovation or quarantine.
This theatrical distance is established right from the beginning. Even before we meet frustrated young artist, Konstantin (Paolo Santalucia) and see his awkwardly experimental play, the stylized aesthetics of this production are taking cues from his desire to find “new forms” for drama. Dan Mousseau’s workman, Jacob, is a clownish MC, beckoning us with vaudevillian charm. Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor serves as a leitmotif that pops into key scenes, conjuring a melancholy magic that feels deliberate and deceptive.
Konstantin’s mother, Irina (Michelle Monteith), a famous actor, loves him dearly but finds his pretensions and erratic behaviour tedious and distressing. Her flippant reaction to his play—which he hoped would impress her—throws him into a fit. From this point on, all of the characters struggle with notions of art and life, practicalities and philosophy, and it is all meant to be funny and haunting in equal measure.
Characters probe each other in a desperate search for their essential humanness, to reconcile it with their own, and ultimately discover this abject truth: regardless of circumstances—young or old, doctor or teacher, misunderstood artist or celebrated writer—we all suffer. Each of us, bound by the same temporal limitations, have a small window of opportunity to experience what we call life. And it is a constant, painful struggle to give it purpose and value.
I love the material and these characters, but the truth of the performances was inconsistent. With characters falling to their knees, clutching their heads, professing their love or lack thereof—sometimes the dramatics themselves are acknowledged as silly. Chekhov mines the absurdity of our lives—our torment— for humour, but it doesn’t sit right with me when the emotionality itself becomes a joke.
There are moments that sing: Nina’s (Hailey Gillis) boisterous arrival on a scooter, her youthful energy and enthusiasm is a chaotic, exuberant spectacle; Konstantin’s (Santalucia) hunched shoulders and sad, desperate mocking; Peter Sonin’s (Oliver Dennis) moment alone with Konstantin where he confides his genuine admiration for the troubled young man’s artistic vision.
The prolonged Chekovian goodbyes, for instance, are beautifully excruciating here. People are always trying to leave, always intent on going to the city, leaving some responsibility or temptation, declaring their intentions as if this will fill some awful void.
Many of the elements are in perfect alignment, though I experienced it as a series of handsomely performed scenes. My investment ebbed and flowed because the world wasn’t real enough to me for the ending to be as devastating as I wanted it to be.