What: The Seagull
When: Friday nights 7PM – on Facebook and YouTube
Reviewer: Ethan Sills
Auckland Theatre Company was only into the second of the seven plays it planned for the 2020 season when Covid-19 reached New Zealand. Now, like essentially every theatre company around the globe, those plans are up in the air.
Yet from adversity comes creativity, and the company is one of the first in the country to adjust course for our new normal. Like many workplaces, video chat service Zoom has proved ATC's saviour, as they present a quarantined edition of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull.
The characters may be Kiwis sequestered away during lockdown, but fans of the Russian classic are likely to find a lot that is familiar. The digital version follows the play's four act structure, with each act split into a half hour episode debuting online weekly. They see a long-time circle of friends forced to abandon their lakeside trip and make do with video conferencing as their only form of socialisation.
A modern format needs some fresh talent and ATC found the perfect pairing in co-writers Eleanor Bishop and Eli Kent to digitise this adaptation. While the Russian names do stand out, the rest of the play perfectly transferred to New Zealand in lockdown. The dialogue captures the play's essence while making it feel incredibly pertinent and local, aided by small details highlighting the eccentricities of lockdown life.
The cast may be separated but Bishop has done a stellar job of directing remotely; by stepping into people's homes and experiencing the selves they present online, the characters feel familiar on a new level. It helps that the cast is made up of some of New Zealand's finest, with Jennifer Ward-Lealand dominating as ever as fading actress Irina Arkadina, while the likes of Goretti Chadwick and Stephen Lovatt use their home-based sets to their full extent to grow their small roles.
Of the two episodes released so far, Shadon Meredith and Nathalie Morris (also on screen in TVNZ's One Lane Bridge) dominate the second episode as Trigotin and Nina respectively. It is between them that the true benefits of this digital experiment are seen; Trigotin's monologue about success and fame, framed here through the eyes of a Waititi-esque acclaimed director, shows the adaptability of Chekov's text, while Nina's unwavering admiration is caught in visceral detail by her webcam.
While I am sure many regular theatregoers would prefer live theatre over what feels like a web series, it is a relief ATC acted so quickly to keep the theatrical spirit alive during these times. Undoubtedly the company's creatives will be thinking about how they can protect their assets should something else of this magnitude arise again, but given that The Seagull feels more polished than some of their more expensive productions, this seems like a good blueprint to build from.