A Review of The Seagull, Directed by Michael Mayer
As a Russian native, I approach English and American productions about my homeland with some degree of trepidation.
In such cases I am often curious as to whether the actors attempt a Russian accent or stick to their own and whether, most challengingly, they succeed in capturing the ‘Russian way’. In a film based on Anton Chekhov’s play, the failure to embody this uniquely Russian way of being can mean descending from the heights of the original masterpiece into gratuitous melodrama.
Chekhov’s The Seagull rings true to a Russian audience. I can vouch for the fact that a summer spent at the dacha (the Russian for country house), even in our 21st century context seem to be an irreverent echo of Chekov’s plays. That is part of the enduring beauty of Chekhov’s work. His sensitivity to social dynamics and unspoken words often leave you feeling as though he had been a fly on the wall of your very own home.
Unfortunately, however, Michael Mayer’s rendering of The Seagull makes the characters look foreign, unfamiliar and the scenery airbrushed.
The details that are so central to a Russian country estate, like icons always watching the action from the top left corner, animals in the back yard or a broken wheel barrow by the front door or a tipping fence, no matter the social status, have been omitted to give way to sterilely compositional frames and á la- Chekhovian dialogue that, at any opportunity, shies away from the depths of speeches and repartees that cemented the play as a literary classic. The breaking up of the linear narrative into a flashback and flash forward was the only trick that fitted medium of cinema.
In Hollywood’s take, it appears as though the characters were caught somewhere between Russia as well as England and/or America and that they live in a period somewhere between the early 20th century and the present day. The medium itself is lost somewhere between its filmic potential and the original context of the piece as a play, never quite jumping the fence.
Chekov's cozy drawing-room drama sits uncomfortably within the context of a cinema screen, buckets of popcorn and girls behind you whispering, "God! This one is well fit.”
Moreover, the self-reflexive consideration of the hardships of acting and playwriting, which work so fittingly in Chekhov’s play about the making of a play, seems to lose its gusto when translated to the silver screen.
Constantin Stanislavsky worked closely with Chekov on the famous 1898 production of the Seagull at the Moscow Art theatre and developed method acting, dictating that the actors should draw from their own emotional experiences in order to invest their role with truth. The tidy scenes of Elizabeth Moss as mournful-for-life-Masha, Saoirse Ronan as a struggling actress and Corey Stroll as a famous and oppressive playwright don’t ring true in the forced Russian context. Perhaps, Moss never appears to have been depressed, Ronan certainly has never been a struggling actress and Stroll has never written a play.
The most valuable result of this rendition of Chekhov’s masterpiece is however, in my mind, that it might encourage you to see a production of his plays (perhaps with the actors mentioned above), or to read more Russian literature or even to make a trip to Russia.
Written by Anastasia Lopoukhine, a Contributor to Arteviste