UNREQUITED love is not an emotion with which our culture has much patience. If your beloved cannot “meet you needs”, runs the received wisdom of our age, then you should cut your losses and move on. Only fools hang around longing for those who do not long for them.
It’s part of Checkhov’s greatness as a playwright, though, that he will not accept such shallow comfort. He knows that unrequited love is a tragedy, a very common one, for which there is no real remedy; and in The Seagull, he makes that interplay between those who love, and those who do not love in return, the very heart of his drama.
It’s a timeless theme, and Blanche McIntyre’s electrifying production for Headlong Theatre and the Nuffield, Southampton, at the Citizens’ this week, strips away the period detail in which the drama is usually surrounded, exposing its bare bones as if it were the long-stripped skeleton of the dead seagull that forms the play’s central image.
It’s not that John Donnelly’s superb new version actually updates the play; it sears its way through the text with a dazzlingly sharp, frank and modern turn of phrase, but leaves the period detail intact.
Laura Hopkins’ design, though, gives us a cast of modern-looking people in jeans and denim jackets, but with their sharp wit and sheer self-aborption often stripped down to reveal the agony of emotional rejection beneath.
And the result is a brilliant, tense and completely gripping two-and-a-half hours of ensemble theatre, illuminated throughout by Alexander Cobb’s superb performance as Constantin, a young man full of feeling, brilliance, potential, but finally destroyed by the absence of the love that every human soul craves.