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The first of what are generally considered to be the four major plays by Anton Chekhov, The Sea Gull was written in 1895 and first mounted in St. Petersburg in 1896, a famously disastrous production met with such hostility by the audience that Chekhov fled backstage and the lead actress lost her voice. When it was remounted by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1898 under the direction of Constantin Stanislavski, Chekhov thought that reports of its resounding success were merely kind lies told by his supporters.
The play has become recognized as one of the landmarks of world theater, notable for its fully developed ensemble of characters, a subtle plot structure that countered the melodramatic traditions of theater at that time, and a reliance on subtext. It has been produced countless times on stages throughout the world, featuring such actors as Uta Hagen, Ethan Hawke, Laura Linney, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Ian McKellen, and Carey Mulligan.
The play has also been adapted numerous times for both the big screen and television in Sweden, Spain, England, Italy (by noted director Marco Bellochio), and Chekhov's native Russia, but never with a more illustrious cast than the 1968 British-American-Greek production of The Sea Gull, directed by Sidney Lumet.
The cast includes James Mason, Simone Signoret, David Warner, Denholm Elliott, Vanessa Redgrave, and in her final feature film appearance, Eileen Herlie, Gertude to both Laurence Olivier's Hamlet in 1948 and Richard Burton's in 1964. With an ensemble like this under the direction of Lumet, who guided 17 different actors to Oscar®-nominated performances (with four wins), one would expect a powerhouse version of Chekhov's play. Critics, however, have not been kind to the film, noting that its biggest problem is a tendency toward too much tragedy and dramatic intensity in a work that demands a certain delicacy of touch and a gentle handling of human foibles. Vincent Canby of The New York Times said the production "makes too literal the boredom and quiet despair that should hang over the Chekovian characters like an unseen mist," and London's TimeOut noted, "Lumet has assembled a distinguished cast, found a marvellous lakeside location in Sweden, and vaselined the lens to give an air of autumn melancholy" but called the result "sometimes dull and almost always unsatisfactory." Despite any problems Lumet may have had bringing the material to the screen, most reviewers remarked on the overall excellence of the performances, even if the heavily French-accented Simone Signoret seems out of place, particularly against the very British Harry Andrews as her brother.
The story, set in rural Russia, details romantic and artistic conflicts among a group of diverse characters, including fading leading lady Arkadina; her brooding son Konstantin, an experimental playwright; and the ingnue Nina, whose attentions are torn between Konstantin's love for her and her fascination with Arkadina's lover Trigorin, a successful hack writer. The play depicts the gradual moral and spiritual disintegration of their lives.
Lumet, a true actor's director, loved working with James Mason and had high praise for his skills: "I always thought he was one of the best actors who ever lived. Whatever you gave him to do he would take it, assimilate it and then make it his own. The technique was rock solid, and I fell in love with him as an actor, so every time I came across a script I wanted to direct I would start to read it thinking is there anything here for James? He had no sense of stardom at all. He wanted good billing and the best money he could get, but then all he ever thought about was how to play the part. In that sense he reminded me more of an actor in a theatre repertory ensemble than a movie star, and it was what made him so good." In addition to some early Playhouse 90 episodes in the 1950s and a TV movie, John Brown's Raid (1960), in which Mason played the title role, Lumet directed the actor in The Deadly Affair (1966), Child's Play (1972), and The Verdict (1982), earning Mason one of three Academy Award nominations.
The autumnal look of The Sea Gull was the work of British cinematographer Gerry Fisher, who lensed John Huston's Wise Blood (1979) and Joseph Losey's Secret Ceremony (1968), The Go-Between (1970), and A Doll's House (1973).
The film's look was also created by production designer Tony Walton, a multiple Tony Award winner for his theatrical design and an acclaimed production and costume designer for a number of films, many of them adaptations of stage works, such as Equus (1977), The Wiz (1978), Deathtrap (1982), and The Glass Menagerie (1987).
The adaptation and translation of Chekhov's play was done by Baroness Moura Budberg, a character worthy of her own film. A Russian aristocrat who wrote books and also adapted Chekhov for Laurence Olivier's production of Three Sisters (1970), she was reputed to have been the lover of Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells and possibly a double agent for Soviet and British intelligence, earning her the nickname "Mata Hari of Russia."
Producer: Sidney Lumet
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Moura Budberg (adaptation & translation); Anton Chekhov (play)
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Film Editing: Alan Heim
Cast: James Mason (Trigorin, a writer), Vanessa Redgrave (Nina, a landowner's daughter), Simone Signoret (Arkadina, an actress), David Warner (Konstantin Treplev, her son), Harry Andrews (Sorin, her brother), Denholm Elliott (Dorn, a doctor), Eileen Herlie (Polina, the bailiff's wife), Alfred Lynch (Medvedenko, a schoolteacher), Ronald Radd (Shamraev, the estate bailiff), Kathleen Widdoes (Masha - His Daughter).
by Rob Nixon