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Two concentrated chickens and something with Chekhov at @hollandfestival

Holland Festival Holland Festival

Seagull, an early play by Anton Chekhov, is about drama in the same way that his equally famous play Cherry Garden is about cherry growing or real estate fraud. Not so. It seems to be a mistake that stage artists often make and that Chekhov cites in his 115-year-old play: thinking that everything is always about you. Which is why Thomas Ostermeier, lauded German director, cannot be blamed for the fact that his direction of The Seagull at Toneelgroep Amsterdam is about theatre.

That choice only affects the pleasure you, the theatre-goer, will get from this performance. Because the play seems to centre on a discussion between an old and an up-and-coming writer, and because there is a struggle over what constitutes 'new forms' in theatre, the director thinks that this discussion should also play a role in the form of the performance. And so that's where it goes wrong.

The actors of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and with Hans Kesting, Chris Nietvelt, Hugo Koolschijn, Bart Slegers and Alwyn Pulinckx we don't have the least of them to deal with, have to do something new from the director. So they play that they don't play. The texts are more casual than casual, the importance of words is more lateral than lateral and the set is more schematic than schematic. For someone from German theatre, that kind of minimalism in acting might be new, here in the Netherlands we have been doing it since the mid-1970s.

Ad nauseam.

Of course, there is a justification behind this realism. The two live chickens that the director puts on stage refer to the battle between Chekhov and his famous house director Stanislavski, more than a hundred years ago. In a legendary letter, the writer complains about the live stock the director puts on stage to demonstrate the realism of Chekhov's play. Chekhov feels that such realism distracts from his real message.

Rightly so.

His real message is about the emotional violence people inflict on each other when they let their lives be dictated by their dreams and frustrations. That everyone is everyone's victim was Chekhov's real innovation in the late 19th century. That innovation in theme is far more important than the form later directors gave to his work. For there are countless of them.

Why Thomas Ostermeier has Toneelgroep Amsterdam's actors play in a style and design that is now outdated even on Joop van den Ende's stages remains a mystery. Why everyone talks as if nothing is meant, except the young actress Nina, who breaks down in the play to the cynicism of the ruling class, is also so pointless. Her fierce emotions drop dead in an ensemble that is in no way receptive to them. Perhaps intended by the direction, but it doesn't work.

Why, at the end of the play, we really can't feel anything at all of what Chekhov wanted to impart to his audience and their children's children is pretty awful. Remains that that one sprint that that one chicken made halfway through a too-long silence is burned into the retinas of everyone who was there, at the premiere.

But to experience that, you can also go to a farm.

Good to know
Chekhov's The Seagull by Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Seen on 16 June 2013 at the Holland Festival. Info and playing dates.

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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