This year’s Magdalen garden play, Chekhov’s The Seagull, unfortunately had to have its opening performance inside owing to predictable Oxford weather. While the space of the auditorium wasn’t ideal, the cast were strong enough to open their run with a solid and enjoyable performance, tackling an extremely ambitious choice of play with confidence and skill.
Tom Ames gave a standout performance as Dorn the doctor, taking to the stage with natural ease and presence. Megan Thresh came into her own and shone in the penultimate scene as Nina, forming a tangible chemistry with Leo Danczak, a somewhat understated but firmly believable Konstantin. Cat White had elegance and gravitas as Arkadina, becoming truly captivating in a scene with her lover Trigorin (Cameron Quinn), but presented one of several performances that was often directed too much away from the audience. Small changes to issues like this could raise the bar so much higher: this is clearly a team who are capable of wonderful things, but who are a little underrehearsed. The generally relaxed nature of garden plays combined with Oxford term time constraints perhaps made The Seagull – a text demanding a large cast and intricate study – a questionable choice.
The production as a whole suffered from a lack of directorial precision. Some of the blocking was a little loose, leaving actors to wander somewhat aimlessly at points, and characters occasionally appeared underdeveloped. Projection was a problem virtually across the board; while the echoing space of the Magdalen auditorium is not designed for this type of theatre, upping the diction and volume could make a huge and quick difference, and prevent the ends of lines being lost. Overall, the energy of the cast and their chemistry did not quite match the precise rigour required by Chekhov’s brilliant but melodramatic text. Often performances were studied but too subtle, or became stilted in the more expositional speeches – but moments where emotions bubbled to the surface or real tension was felt between characters showed exciting flashes of brilliance.
Strange costume choices confused the overall vision: the period-specific elements of the dialogue jarred with a mixture of modern and more contemporary dress. In terms of lighting, some of the actors’ faces became frustratingly lost in shadow at points, but the last minute change of venue and its novelty for the actors are fully to blame.
I commend director Rupert Stonehill and the whole cast for mounting an emotionally charged and mature production, dealing elegantly and sensitively with some very heavy subject matter. While a more in-depth interrogation of the text was needed to keep the audience fully engaged for its lengthy duration, this is a piece with potential. It is only opening night, and on top of that the team successfully battled some unwelcome challenges unique to garden plays. With some simple improvements, combined with natural settling across a run, Stonehill’s production could really soar.