Billy Howle

The Seagull

09/09/18

The name Anton Chekov inevitably brings with it an expectation of lashings of doom and gloom. How many visits to the theatre have yielded hours of miserable people staring bleakly out at fields of wheat and talking about suicide? So it’s heartening to note that this version of The Seagull, directed by Michael Mayer and adapted by Steve Karam, has a lightness of touch about it that makes it feel downright sprightly – not a word you’d usually associate with the Russian playwright.

The action takes place on the country estate of Pjotr (Brian Dennehey), the ailing older brother of successful actress Irina (Annette Bening). Here, upstate New York stands in for the Russian countryside, but manages to look convincing enough, at least to my untrained eye. Irina’s son, budding playwright Konstantin (Billy Howle), also lives on the estate, and is currently involved in a romance with local girl, Nina (Saoirse Ronan), who is his muse and the main actress in his fledgling symbolist play, which they are planning to perform for their summer visitors. Irina arrives from Moscow with her latest conquest in tow. He is the incredibly successful writer, Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) and, therefore, a bit of a trophy for Irina to show off. Konstantin is already intensely jealous of the man’s success and that’s before Nina starts flirting outrageously with him.

Meanwhile, Konstantin is completely oblivious to the fact that the estate steward’s daughter, Masha (Elizabeth Moss), is completely besotted with him; she, in turn, is devoutly loved by impoverished local schoolmaster, Mikhail (Michael Zegen), of whom he has a very low opinion. It’s clearly going to end badly and, this being Chekov, of course, there is some tragedy waiting in the wings, but the journey towards it passes so pleasurably, it’s never feels like an imposition.

Bening’s performance as the incredibly vain and manipulative Irena, is an absolute joy, while Moss (top-billed here, no doubt because of the success of The Handmaid’s Tale) manages to make Masha’s drink-fuelled gloom at her own failings quite hilarious. Ronan is every bit as good as she always is and I particularly enjoy John Tenney’s portrayal of the pragmatic Doctor Dorn, a man who spends all of his time pouring oil onto troubled waters, consoling the lovelorn and tending the wounded.

Chekov can be a bit like medicine. You know it’s good for you and you know you really ought to have it, but he can sometimes leave a bad taste. Not here though. I can’t remember when I last enjoyed the playwright’s work as much as this.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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On Chesil Beach

 

27/05/18

I’m surprised to realise I haven’t read On Chesil Beach. I’ve read most of Ian McEwan’s ouvre, but not this slim novella. Maybe I’ve just balked at paying a standard paperback price for so few pages. Whatever. When friends suggest we meet up and make a day of it – a film in the afternoon; a meal in the evening – I’m more than happy to give this one a go.

It’s a decent movie, adapted by the author. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle give excellent central performances as Florence and Edward, the clever young couple whose love for one another is evident, but who cannot negotiate the weight of expectation on their wedding night. They are wounded and humiliated by their failure to consummate their marriage; their naivety and innocence is heartbreaking to see. Too angry, too proud, too fragile, they don’t give themselves a chance, and their relationship is over before it’s even really begun. Their excruciating attempts to initiate sex are depicted here in agonising detail, their awkwardness and vulnerability cleverly conveyed.

We learn their history through flashbacks, which is quite effective in slowing down the pace and emphasising the couple’s interminable embarrassment. They meet when Edward blunders into an Oxford student CND meeting, bursting with the news that he’s gained a first in his degree. With no one to tell, he turns to a stranger – and Florence, who has just graduated with the same grade, is happy to help him celebrate. They come from very different backgrounds: she from the status-obsessed upper middle-classes, with an academic mother (Emily Watson) and an angrily competitive father (Samuel West); he from a more bohemian country life – his mild-mannered father (Adrian Scarborough) is head teacher of the village school; his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) is an artist, ‘brain-damaged’ after an accident. No matter; Florence and Edward fall in love. And, after their disastrous wedding night, they fall apart.

Much has been made of McEwan’s ingenuity in condensing the rest of the couple’s lives to a kind of footnote, thus highlighting the significance of their failure on that fateful day. But –  for me at least – this is the film’s failing. It feels like a careful set-up followed by a sketchy summary, and I am disappointed by the broad strokes of the final third.

Still, I’m glad I’ve seen it. It’s a sad tale of an experience that is hopefully far less commonplace, now that the silly notion of ‘saving oneself’ for a wedding night is a thing of the distant past.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield