Words by Ian McKellen
Konstantin Stanislavski was the first to recognise that Chekov’s plays need not stars, but the sort of interdependent group of actors that founded the Moscow Art Theatre. Whenever I have been involved with setting up a theatre company, Chekov has been there to help. During my apprenticeship at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry I had tried playing Konstantin in The Seagull. The democratically-run Actors’ Company chose his early play The Wood Demon for our second season (1973). When I organised the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first small-scale tour in 1978, Three Sisters gave us all demanding parts and it was the same again with the new company at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Although Jude Kelly expected me to play two leading parts in our season of three plays, I wanted to make my debut with the Courtyard Company in a play which would bind the new troupe together and show us off as an integrated ensemble. The Seagull fitted that bill. Ever since I saw George Devine (the founder of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre in London) as Dr. Dorn, I had known it was a wonderful part. He is everyone’s friend, observing and advising, not perhaps as passionate a medical man as Dr. Chekov himself but it is tempting to see an authorial sympathy. He is ironic and there are laughs to get. When Dorn goes on his travels in Act Three, the actor can rest in the dressing room, an advantage for me with a torrent of lines to be learnt for the upcoming Present Laughter which we rehearsed during the days of The Seagull’s four weeks run.
Arkadina is a showy part and from the outset Clare Higgins landed on her mercurial essence. My old mate from Richard III and Napoli Millionaria at the National Theatre was a powerhouse for the whole production. As Nina, Claudie Blakley, fitted better than I had ever seen, the ambitious girl of the first three acts with the pained young actress of the final scene. Clare Swinburne's Marsha was also spot on. Not all the performances were quite so revelatory but the production as a whole flowed and ebbed to great effect. My main contribution in rehearsals was to report to Jude and the company on my experience of working with Mike Alfreds on The Cherry Orchard (1985), encouraging a freedom of playing that particularly suits Chekov's naturalism. We were given the licence to create the moves at each performance, a technique that suited the traverse staging with the audience of 300 ranged either side of the narrow platform in the Courtyard Theatre in Leeds. At the outset Jude had intended an end-on production but having sat “behind” the action at one run-through, she excitedly reported that the play could be viewed as effectively from either direction and arranged for Robert Innes Hopkins's set to be changed accordingly. So we came to do the play without stage scenery, depending on the furniture and Peter Munford's lighting to create the varying atmosphere of each act. After my recent experience of the wide-open space of the Olivier Theatre, being so close to the audience confirmed that West Yorkshire Playhouse was where I most wanted to be — at least for the time being. We were all thrilled when John Peter of the Sunday Times called ours “one of the great Chekov productions of my life” and it was a relief that Tom Stoppard also approved of our handling of his translation. — Ian McKellen, June 2001