I grew up going to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, lucky enough to get used to seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company, which I think you can never get tired of. OK, so The Merry Wives of Windsor at Christmas was a little tiresome, but the RSC is normally unparalleled. A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Adrian Noble has stuck in my mind ever since. But the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Shakespeare's home town has nothing on the BAM theater. Preserved like a strange relic, it stands uassuming in a strange part of Downtown Brooklyn. Someone did the right thing at that theater by leaving it alone. No new paint, no ridiculous construction, just exposed brick, peeling paint and crumbing columns. Yes, it feels like debris might fall on you at any minute, but that's part of the charm, isn't it?
Yes, I expected the production to be full of the themes of unrequited love, ambitious angst, the power of potential, the issues of talent, the dread of failure and the concept of life as something to be wasted or used to its fullest. They were there alright. What I didn't really think about was how well the RSC would tackle the humor of the play, taking it comfortably into British idiosyncrasies and sardonically using the power of pause to make the humorous parts of Chekhov's play really, really funny. I got to the play exhausted and not sure I could sit through three hours and ten minutes of emotional theater. But the RSC was so damned funny that I forgot I was sitting on the thinly-padded seats of a rickety bench and focused on my belly laughs instead. We didn't see Ian McKellan play Peter Sorin but William Gaunt did an impeccable job. Monica Dolan was a brilliant Masha and Frances Barber an amazing Arkadina.
Romola Garai stole the show as Nina though. At once naive, awkward and shiny-new she pirouettes around the stage with an awkwardness that only someone with real introspection could conjure. The play-within-a-play theme is a tough one to grasp, but Garai took it to a new level. The sybmolism of the transformation of Nina as the seagull, broken and helpless and the subsequent and parallel rise of Konstantin was achieved brilliantly. Nina's marionette-like figure gets pulled this way and that by different hands, and yet it is her first puppeteer that suffers in the end.
The wonderful thing about this production (well, one of them anyway) is that it is the same cast as in King Lear, playing concurrently, both directed by Trevor Nunn. Barber swings between Arkadina and Goneril, Garai as the two young innocents Nina and Cordelia, Gaunt between Sorin and The Earl of Gloucester, immediately making parallels between these two immense plays. Seeing both these productions in conjuction would, I am certain, be something I would remember for the rest of my life. Swooping onto Cragislist, I discovered that I wasn't the only one to be desperate for tickets. I thought I would pay anything, but I was wrong. I am not going to pay $500 for a ticket, but there are many others out there that will. Perhaps I should fly to London in November instead. I think it would be worth it.
Photographs by RSC and BAM.