October Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

The heavyweights at NAPA obviously have a fondness for Chekov. The group’s first major offeringHabib Mamoon was an adaptation of the playwright’s Uncle Vanya. This time round, they chose to present a translation, not an adaptation, of Chekov’s Seagull which played in Karachi last month. But Chekov’s works are not easy to pull off, relying as they do on creating a mood and focusing on individual angst that comes to a head without any obvious movement in the story or even any resolution of the crises simmering within the characters. Habib Mamoon worked because of the successful recreation of a bygone era with its particular values which moulded the type of people who inhabited it. And powerhouse performances by thespians like Talat Hussain and Rahat Kazmi made palpable the roiling emotions that Chekov characters are inevitably caught up in. Unfortunately, Seagull didn’t manage to stir the same feelings nor did it soar to any new heights.

Directed by the legendary Zia Mohyeddin, one wonders why he opted for a translation that inevitably had supposed nineteenth century Russians spouting pristine Urdu. While the costumes were authentic and the sets particularly well designed and detailed, this basic incongruity proved a little distracting, robbing the story of a certain depth and reminded the audiences that it was all play acting after all. The story does not rely on one central protagonist and instead, it is the cohesive effort of a host of characters that makes up a complex web of flawed human relationships which the play presents.

Originally billed as a dark comedy when written by the playwright, Seagull had a disastrous opening night when first staged. Subsequently, however, it went on to become a success and is generally regarded as one of Chekov’s greatest plays, relying for impact on subtext and nuance in his inimitable style. The play unfolds on the country estate of an elderly gentleman who lives there with his nephew, the sensitive and brooding Konstantin who is an aspiring playwright with radical and experimental ideas. The two are visited by Irina Arkadina, Konstantin’s mother and an acclaimed actress, who is accompanied by her lover Trigorin, a successful writer. The artistic differences between Konstantin and his mother, whom he considers part of popular but meaningless theatre, becomes a fresh source of vitriol in an already complex and conflicted relationship between the mother and son. Domineering and egotisitical, Irina’s love for her son seems incidental while he yearns for her approval but at the same time goes out of his way to antagonise her. To make matters more complicated, the ageing diva Irina has to suffer the presence of the fresh-faced ingénue Nina, an aspiring actress and the love of Konstantin’s life who, however, becomes smitten by the famous writer Trigorin in their midst. (Review continues below).

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Konstantin’s resentment of Trigorin — whom he considers a mid brow writer — as his mother’s lover and, in the final insult, as the man who wrests Nina away from him, stokes a dangerous fire within him. Juxtaposed with the man’s easy success and equally effortless wooing of beautiful young things is Konstantin’s diminishing sense of self-worth and seething frustration. In venting his anger, he shoots a seagull which he lays at Nina’s feet; she recoils at the macabre offering. She later shows the dead bird to Trigorin who seems intrigued by the concept of a beautiful free spirited bird being hunted down so carelessly. Indeed, it is this seagull which serves as a metaphor for Nina herself as the play unfolds.

Konstantin’s unrequited passion for Nina is meanwhile mirrored by one who loves him just as ardently and hopelessly. Masha is the daughter of his uncle’s manager who loves Konstantin and who is in turn loved by a simple school teacher. The chain of unrequited passions continues with the manager’s wife, sensitively portrayed by Nimra Bucha, who harbours strong feelings for the local doctor, effortlessly but unremarkably played by Talat Hussain. While gentle and courteous enough, the doctor does not want to be drawn into any deep entanglement. All in all, this seemingly quiet little Russian village is a hotbed of seething passion and violence. Chekov’s portrayal of human nature is, in fact, an indictment of one’s own obsessions, the inability to look anywhere but inwards with scant regard for the suffering of others. Both Konstantin and Masha are unapologetically cruel to the one’s who are hopelessly in love with them.

All these passions and complexities are to be discerned in the speeches and soliloquies of the characters which can become heavy going. The NAPA cast is competent enough and it goes to the director’s credit that he has managed to wrest some heartfelt performances from the new line-up as well, but the plight of the characters never quite touches the audience. Whether it is Konstantin’s self-destructive behaviour, Nina’s descent into an ugly reality or Irina’s calculated yet desperate attempts to retain control, all this fails to transport audiences into any emotional realm where one is genuinely moved.

Rahat Kazmi puts in a seemingly effortless performance as the easy-going but selfish Trigorin, who comes across as amoral rather than villainous. Bakhtawar Mazhar turns in an hard-edged and effective performance as Irina while Saquib Khan as the tortured Konstantin also shows promise. Aimen Tariq, who has been a regular in almost all NAPA plays, is much improved in this presentation. But while she successfully captures Nina’s initial charming naivety and enthusiasm, she fails to impress in the all important last act which leads to the climax of the play. Unfortunately, the portrayal seemed contrived and Nina’s pain does not emanate convincingly.

A famous playwright, an acclaimed director and a talented cast — the ingredients were all there. But Seagull did not quite take off.

Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.