Belvoir’s ‘The Seagull’, written by Chekhov, butchered by Benedict Andrews

When director Benedict Andrews spoke to the audience before the show to apologise going up 10 minutes late, he should have kept the apologies coming in for what was a travesty of a tragedy. But what is obvious is that Benedict Andrews doesn’t care about his audience- or the play for that matter- because if he did, I can’t imagine he would have presented such a self-indulgent butchering of Chekhov’s work. 

I blame ‘War of the Roses’, where the raining glitter and ash, the static performances, spitting blood, flour, sweat and 8 hours of what turned out to be therapy-inducing theatre was so lauded by the critics, Andrews fell under the spell of theatre’s greatest  wank. And I firmly believe he thinks he is cutting edge, he is reinventing the theatre, he is breathing life into the classics (like he successfully did with ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’)  and those who don’t agree are fossils, poor sad souls trapped in theatre’s past and unable to journey into this new generational funky wave. Dismiss the haters as ignorant traditionalists. It’s ironic, given what ‘The Seagull’ is about, that he feels he is poking fun at us. I’d like to think he is poking fun at himself in there somewhere but I think Andrews spends too much time in his own head. I recommend a holiday, Mr Andrews. Get some sun, a few drinks and a dose of the real world.
Segue way into Belvoir. What are you doing?? I’ll forgive you for the appropriation of Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck’, even if I thought the glass house was a bit much and the re-writing a bit thin because I think you managed to make it work for the most part. I haven’t yet forgiven you for ‘The Business’, where we all learnt that an 80’s soundtrack and retro costumes do not a play make. But this? Where do I start? Is this the result of putting a young man in the artistic director’s chair who is caught up in trying to be clever and naively putting a season together with people who think exactly the same as him and market for an audience exactly the same as him? Where are the voices of contrast? Maybe you should direct your audiences to what you’re doing Downstairs, which is much more interesting, than subject them to what you are doing on the main stage. I’m giving notice now that if you turn ‘Summer of the 17th Doll’ into a play set in a modern cafe in Marrickville, I’m outta there.
I saw this production in the second preview night so maybe it’ll pick up over the season, although reports back from friends who are either leaving at interval or bemoaning the waste of 3 hours may suggest otherwise. The first thing that strikes you is Myers’ set- what can only be described as a trailer park in rural coastal Australia. So let’s address that for a moment. By all means, reinvent the classics, transpose them into a contemporary world, be bold. However, if as a result of this you lose the play, what are you presenting? If you are desperately trying to fit your round piece into a square hole, you’ve lost perspective. Don’t significantly mess with the play if you can’t make it more relevant or a better version of itself. And don’t sell this as ‘The Seagull’. You may as well market this as ‘3 hours of Andrews & Co wanking over Chekhov’. What a waste of a good cast but more of that later.
I should have trusted my instincts after watching the opening scene of Masha engaging in a bucket bong. I missed another opportunity to run out and reclaim my night once they unveiled yet another glass box to represent the theatre (come on Belvoir & Andrews- find a new metaphor), or the neon lights declaring  REAL LIFE- when the lights were working. There is some attempt to make this a theatrical device of the pretention of theatre but that only made it more confusing when Andrews actually uses it to remind us in the second half that we are now watching real life. Oh…and let’s not forget the raining black ash to represent the dark winter and dashed dreams? If you’re going to remove the essence of the play and fill it with symbols, and let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a Benedict Andrews play without it, can we at least employ something new?  But even with all that, Andrews’ complete contempt of the audience by staging almost the entirety of the second half inside the trailer, behind the glass doors, reminding us, I suppose, that we all return to the mundane world of reality after the show, was enough to make me wish I was at home cleaning the mould in the kitchen cupboards.
I was confused by the keeping of the names and the references to returning to Moscow if we’re now in Jindabyne.  This was perhaps best highlighted by the choice to present Ilya Shamrayev, played by Terry Serio, as a brutish, esky carrying, Australian stereotype. And I was not alone in my confusion. At interval you could hear a multitude of voices asking their companions to explain what this play was about and I’m not sure that the second half clarified any of that for us. I know Chekhov treads such a fine line between comedy and tragedy. In fact most Russian playwrights walk this road and it’s a brilliant reflection of a harsh landscape, life and culture and times of great upheaval and revolution. Andrews’ play probably does a better job exploring the comedy rather than the tragedy but the production is all over the place. This production is monochrome in its message. Whilst it attempts to hammer home the idea of enduring real life, it has garbled every other complexity of the play and washed it away, sacrificed them to make sure that we all got the idea that real life is hard and boring. I don’t need to go to the theatre for 3 hours to learn that one message, thank you very much. Please refer to the comment on my kitchen mould as evidence of my understanding.
Andrews has  cast such a wonderful assembly of some of Australia’s finest- Judy Davis, David Wenham, Billie Brown, Anita Hegh, Terry Serio, John Gaden (although on a personal note, if I see John Gaden in one more show I may poke my eyes out with a blunt stick. Aren’t there any other distinguished older actors apart from Gaden and Peter Carroll that could get a look in?) He has also employed a generally fine young ensemble of actors. Yep. Cast them all and then completely pissed them up the wall on this heartbreaking misinterpretation of what should have been the highlight of the Belvoir season. They did their best to try to make this work but to no avail. I can only imagine how bad it would have been without them. Terrifying.
I wish I could have come out raving about art vs life or about the parallels of Russia in 1901 and Australia in 2011. Instead my hope is that Belvoir stops sending me letters to donate money or bequeath them in my will because I’m feeling my internal organs atrophy as every second of these productions tick by. If you keep producing work like this, I can’t see myself subscribing ever again. Get your hands off it, get someone in to tell you some cold hard truth and start respecting your audience.   Andrews says in the program “In Ralph’s first year as Artistic Director, I wanted us to reflect on the task and craft the impetus of theatre-making. What is at stake in the experience?” The answer is simple: your audience.
If you insist on seeing it- and as the season sold out before opening, I’m imagining many of you will-start drinking early and hope for the best. I strongly advise that this will not be a show you will want to sit through once, let alone twice. And if you’d like to skip the whole thing and come over and clean my kitchen cupboards, I could give you the entire Seagull experience in much less time and much cheaper.
It’s your call.

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18 comments

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Anonymous June 13, 2011 at 8:28 am

Ha ha – you might enjoy Alice Williams The Seagull" playing concurrently at the Old Fitz – it IS FUNNY, INTELLIGENT – go on, I'd love to hear what you think. It's much smarter than anything these people could come up with!

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Berndt Monroe June 13, 2011 at 11:37 am

Oh – I'm enjoying this fresh voice in the blog-o-sphere…. at last – someone calling Mainstream Sydney Theatre for what it is – a shocking case of the Emperor's New Clothes, (not) covering a nasty, supperating rash of carbuncle and pus….

If Seagull is anywhere near as wankified, boring, tedious, unmitigated gutter-trash as were The Wars of the Roses, then subscribers are in for a sustained (non) treat…

Wanking young directors could not give a rat's arse for the audience – only see themselves as superior, enlightened beings bestowing their "vision" upon the Great Unwashed, who of course pay large money to be so insulted. Half-time walkout is the KINDEST protest which can be offered. Or perhaps, as in Shakespeare's time, audiences should come prepped with bags of tomatoes – they would employ them with gusto more often than not. Unfortunately, these latter would only imply that the actors were at fault, not their leader. Rarely the case.

Further down the road, if "White Guard" is anything to go by, a substantial percentage of the present proclivity for wanking is being undertaken by middle-aged directors as well – it is quite some time since I have seen this degree of Dog's Breakfast on a Sydney stage from a so-called director-cum-husband of un certain âge.

Neil Armfield – come back… please….

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Apathostic June 13, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Gave up on the Sydney theatre scene, both as an actor and as an audience member. Tired of the same old cast members being regurgitated for every production, tired of the same old productions presenting more in the way of misguided nuance and subtext and less in the way of honest, emotional content, tired of the same self-serving arrogance.

Unfortunately, it's this self-same arrogance that will prevent these doyens of Sydney culture from seeing the dissatisfaction and disappointment engendered by their lack-lustre productions.

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ArtsBeatLA June 13, 2011 at 6:16 pm

There was a fairly famous staging of Chekhov's "Three Sisters" twenty or more years ago (might have been STC) where they relocated the action to Australia.

Instead of the women pining for Moscow, it became "Melbourne, Melbourne, Melbourne…" At least they were consistent. It's not that hard.

Nice review. Keep up the slams!

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Anonymous June 15, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Australian theatre is suffering the same disease as Australian film – an unhealthy romantic love-in with 'working class' by the wanking class or rather the iced tea cake version offered by middle class white boys. This is seen as daring, as raw as, sadly real. Oh for a latte, red wine and an office smack in the heart of an ugly urban city. A piece of art installation does not good design make, alas its the wrong space for such a thing, just like these plays, they are in the wrong space, in setting, in theatre choice, in the director's hands. Go see a foreign film set in a city instead. RubyAtTheMovies

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Callan June 19, 2011 at 1:35 am

When you constantly select from a narrow gene pool, retardation is inevitable.

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Anonymous June 26, 2011 at 12:08 am

Thank you! It's obvious that you go to theatre because you love it, like me, like many, but that you are more often completely let down by a production. I've donated more than 30 years of my life to Australian theatre, and I've lost my belief that it's going to change for the better. Yes, the gene pool is too narrow and it's populated by a small clique of retards. Same old same old story. Now I'm penniless and nearly homeless, my ideas 'outmoded' and staid, I'm old and useless, can't afford tickets anymore. You're my theatre now.

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N. June 29, 2011 at 1:33 pm

I just saw this tonight. Massive FAIL!!!!!!!!!! Let me collect my thoughts and I'll get back to you in detail. Precis: Indulgent (in a really bad amateur way); not fully developed ideas; lazy; oh – f*ck it – it was just a piece of sh!t. More later if I can be bothered talking about the waste of my time it was.

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Anonymous June 29, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Read Kevin Jackson's review up now of B. Andrews' "The Seagull" at http://kjtheatrereviews.blogspot.com/2011/06/seagull.html A detailed dissection of the play. He wonders what all those other critics (who raved) saw. With the exception of Judy Davis, he saw it as a disappointment. Aubrey Mellor is who he suggested would've directed better.

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Anonymous July 4, 2011 at 1:57 am

Haven't seen the production, but had heard a similar response from a reviewer friend (not mainstream media) who found it dull, tedious, self-indulgent and a waste of time, talent and money. As for War of the Roses – spare me! Didn't even bother with Part 2 – and I had a freebie!! With Beno (as he's affectionately known), I think it's a case of the Emperor's New Clothes. No one prepared to acknowledge that many of his 'experiments' are abject failures for fear they'll be shot down. That Griffin is promoting its end of year production of the truly fabulous play 'The Ugly One' by boasting that it's written by a German collaborator of Benedict Andrews (who actually has no connection with the production) – say no more. Sydney theatre scene is capable of some wonderful creativity, and I do still live in hope – but the fringe/independent scene is where you'll find the best stuff. The 'big' theatre companies are lost.

Anyway, enough of me. Keep posting, I'll keep reading, might not always agree, but an honest response is always refreshing.

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Anonymous November 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Hmmm, can we remember The Seagull at Belvoir with Gillian Jones, Noah Taylor, Cate Blanchette etc.

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Anonymous November 8, 2011 at 2:20 am

Ahh yes, we remember… Rebecca Massey as Masha and the making of a cot bed, we can remember Cate running outside to tap on Kostya's window, from the street, Gillian and Richard and how fabulous a rendition of this play it was. I left the current production at interval so as not to have the previous memories overwritten.

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rumtytum February 7, 2012 at 4:47 am

Yes, some directors feel the need to improve great plays and they've been given their heads. The problem is that these directors aren't playwrights, aren't really writers at all and all their improvements make the great plays worse. Mind you, there can be some value in the process. I hadn't seen The Wild Duck before and the production sent me racing to read the original which was , as I expected, far more interesting than the comic book version I saw at Belvoir. Because this is what these people are doing – making comics out of novels. Lots of thought bubbles saying POW and KABOOM and lots of contemporary touches like guitar feedback. If I hear guitar feedback in another Simon Stone comic book I'll turn my phone on and throw it at the actors. Simon Stone is everywhere this year and if Thyestes is an indication of where the rest of the year's going I'm not going to be seeing the second half of many plays. Word of advice to Simon – don't put an interval in anything from now on. That way you'll probably keep some of the audience.

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Anonymous February 11, 2012 at 1:17 am

If you think the seagull was a bit of a trial wait until you've had the joy of grinding through the mind numbing implosion that is thyestes at carriageworks. Not a Benedict production, but clearly referencing him referencing Kosky etc etc (when will it all end!). It's a weird experience of reading the actual story of the play poured through two tiny digital readouts during clumsy blackouts between scenes. Then, curtain raises, and we're back into a hysterical barrage of blood, vomit and what could have been re-enacted outakes of benedict andrews home movies. And yes, all in yet another box on stage. An unimaginative production of colossal proportions. I guess if you're under 14 and have never watched youtube you should give this a go.

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Anonymous February 11, 2012 at 5:53 am

Andrews is a boring, untalented prat. He is basically shallow so a rich and textured play like The Seagull is beyond him. I didn’t actually see this play but I did see The Three Sisters years ago at the STC. All I remember is Rose Byrne playing with Star Wars toys during a pivotal moment in her character’s journey, and a working lift as part of the set. All the trauma, love, loss, humor and joy of these characters was completely lost. Does Andrew use all these visual tricks to distract us from the fact that he is a bad director? He should direct film clips not 20th century masterpieces!

It makes me angry, especially when there are so many other hugely talented directors and actors who don’t get a look in because they are not part of the STC (an MTC and Belvoir) clique.

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Robbie Hudson May 7, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I kept thinking I was missing something because I thought it was shit. I was actually certain it was shit. Worse it was boring. I didn't care at all. There were some good lines. Interesting ones. But I wasn't watching professionally presented Chekhov I was watching the first dress rehearsal at a local amateur production in the suburbs. He barely pulled off Grosse and Klein but he probably had minders at the STC who guided him through it.

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Anonymous May 22, 2013 at 12:23 pm

I love this review! Admittedly its a bit late on my part but just wanted to say congrats. I dont agree with all of your reviews. But this in particular – you've summed up a lot of what I have felt is wrong with the clique scene in Sydney for the past few years. There are so many much more talented voices out there and they just keep serving it up on a platter to this boys club. It would seem that the prerequisite for a successful career as a director in Sydney is a beard, the abomination of a classic and a quick trip to Berlin!

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Simonsays2013 October 18, 2013 at 3:42 am

Thanks for your reviews. I totally agree with your views on Andrews and Stone. Both have outsized egos.

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