The Seagull at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London review: Emilia Clarke is charismatic in her West End debut

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The Seagull at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London review: Emilia Clarke is charismatic in her West End debut
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There’s something enjoyably ironic about Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke’s choice of West End debut. She plays aspiring-but-untalented actor Nina, who beams like a schoolgirl collecting a swimming badge when she’s told she could be in films some day. In real life, of course, Clarke’s screen fame has helped pack out the stalls of super-director Jamie Lloyd’s stark, 21st century take on Chekhov’s early play The Seagull.

Clarke is undeniably charismatic, but her presence is far from the only reason to grab a ticket. A universally strong cast act with their faces more than their bodies, bringing a cinematic intensity to this intense exploration of fame, failure, and heartbreak.

Daniel Monks is compellingly unlikeable as Konstantin, a tormented aspiring playwright who obsesses over an unconvinced Nina. He spends much of the play seated centre stage, his gaze retreating inwards as though the scenes playing out around him are the product of his misanthropic imagination.

Indira Varma is mesmerising as his flamboyant mother, the famous actor Arkadina. She bullies her equally famous lover, the middlebrow novelist Trigorin (Tom Rhys Harries) with the smug confidence of a cat disembowelling a mouse. And Sophie Wu makes a hilarious, teenagerish, black-clad Masha, who’d want to die if she wasn’t enjoying hating her life so much.

The cast of The Seagull (Marc Brenner)
The cast of The Seagull (Marc Brenner)

Playwright Anya Reiss’s thoroughly 21st century update on the text bristles with spiky humour. At one point, its cast play charades and quickly guess the title of a Meat Loaf song – “Life is a lemon and I want my money back” being a pretty fair summation of their general ennui.

Perhaps Lloyd’s uncompromising production could do with a bit more of this levity. But instead he aims for, and achieves, a sense of crushing claustrophobia. Chekhov’s play is astute on fame: the scrutiny it comes with, and the way that people fawn in public and bitch in private.

Lloyd’s production expands on this theme by tightly packing the cast into designer Soutra Gilmour’s plywood crate of a set. They stay onstage throughout, reacting to the scenes they’re not in with lovelorn fashion, or, more often, blank-eyed indifference.

There’s something jarring about watching an actor deliver a bravura performance surrounded by the bored faces of their fellow cast members: it’s a poignant reminder that even the most moving work of art will leave some people cold.

Konstantin’s own mother reckons his debut play is as useless as a chocolate samovar. Similarly, Lloyd’s stripped back and static production won’t please all comers. But it’s an exciting break with tradition, converting its star power into a darker, weirder, and more satisfying kind of energy.

The Seagull runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until September 10. Get tickets here.

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