Sunday 25 August 2019

Theatre: The Seagull has landed - with gender-bending twist

Free birds: Jane McGrath and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in The Seagull at Dublin Theatre Festival
Free birds: Jane McGrath and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in The Seagull at Dublin Theatre Festival

Maggie Armstrong

How would you feel if, say, a friend told you they had tickets to see a gender-bending lesbian rewrite of The Seagull? Pleased? Maybe a little scared? Or, how would you feel if a friend simply told you they had tickets to The Seagull?

"We didn't announce it as the lesbian Seagull, it's not on the programme. But it is the lesbian Seagull," says director Annie Ryan of Corn Exchange, whose latest version of Anton Chekhov's early "comedy" is playing at the Dublin Theatre Festival. I pause at the word "comedy", since the titular seagull is a dead bird in a play preoccupied by the ruined dreams of a group of selfish people, whose jokes were written over a century ago.

Funny or no longer funny, Ryan is producing the very first lesbian Irish Seagull. This feels just right in a year when the major Irish film release, A Date for Mad Mary, is a romance between women; when a wildly camp drag show, Riot, wins Best Production at the Dublin Fringe; a year when we are commemorating forgotten women of the past whose true, inside stories we'll never know.

It happened like this. Just last January, DTF's Willie White handed Corn Exchange the reins of the 1,000-seat Gaiety Theatre for two weeks. In the little time they had, Ryan and her husband, playwright Michael West, knew they could pull off The Seagull, which they had adapted in 1999 in their 20s. That version was so before its time that one broadsheet headlined its review "an insult to Chekhov".

This time, in order to pack out the Gaiety, they needed a star to play Konstantin, the embattled and love-lorn young playwright. The company came close to casting Brian Gleeson, who was very keen to play Konstantin. Gleeson then landed a film with Jennifer Lawrence. Not a thing you pass up.

"In the weeks that we were waiting for an answer from him, I started dreaming," says Ryan. "Wouldn't it be great if Konstantin could be a girl? Because certainly, we're surrounded by plenty of amazing female artists who are trying to break ground, and who are lost in their own misery and stuff."

In a bid that goes some way to filling the desperate absence of gay characters in plays we deem classics, Konstantin became Constance, and Jane McGrath was cast. She is the Bean Garda on Red Rock and, Annie discovered, a brilliant physical theatre performer.

The gender swap opened a vat of snakes on to the play at first. If Konstantin became Constance, that meant the local girl Masha, in love with Constance, had to be a closet lesbian. The starlet Nina, muse to Constance, had to become a straight girl flirting with bisexuality.

But it all slipped into place, "naturally and organically", says Ryan. "It's really no big deal, in the best way. It's sort of weirdly invisible. It's just deepened the drama that's in there.

"It instantly makes it contemporary. It also makes it political, which the play isn't otherwise - it's a play about love and art and hanging around all summer in this estate."

It really isn't a big deal for a company that turned Blanche DuBois into a man 20 years ago. But that was in an experimental cranny in the Project. Could Ryan have staged the lesbian Seagull in the Gaiety before last year's same-sex marriage referendum? Oh, yes, she says. "But since that, and Waking the Feminists, gender equality is on everybody's mind, and should be. We should be taking these risks more."

Rory Keenan, who plays the self-hating author Trigorin in The Seagull, says he forgets that Constance was ever written as a boy. "What we're doing isn't anything drastic. The heart of the play is still there, the emptiness is still there. Our first allegiance is to Chekhov." West and Ryan's new translation hasn't changed anything: "It's just given it a hint of magic."

Gender is just one side to bending a classic first performed in 1896. West and Ryan wanted the play to feel Irish and to set it in the now. Ryan felt that most of the Chekhov we see, including translations by Michael Frayn and Tom Kilroy, had put these plays into a Victorian English, or Anglo-Irish setting. But Chekhov, son of a serf, was writing in revolutionary Russia. Corn Exchange wanted their Seagull set in middle-class, financially ruined Irish society, not in a stilted Big House. So their company have thick Irish accents. They say "feck". They smoke fags and take Nicorette instead of snuff.

For Keenan, these characters, with their unwieldy Russian names, are perfectly Irish. "They are all completely lost in their own way, and out of that, the best kind of humour is extracted. That's the Irish psyche. When things are bleak, ultimately things can be very funny."

The ensemble includes stage titans Stephen Brennan and Derbhle Crotty and lots of newer faces. I hope that nice friend has tickets for you. If not, get them. You can blame me if you find the play an insult to Chekhov.

The Seagull plays October 5 to 16 at the Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival.

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