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Review of the Seagulls production at Prague’s Theater On the Railing – 2024-03-28 14:35:30

For the second time this season, Prague’s Na Zabradlí Theater has changed direction. At the beginning of the year, instead of the usual author productions and dramatizations of literary works, it presented a fairy-tale cabaret about the writer Franz Kafka intended for children. Now the director Jiří Havelka presented here the well-known drama The Seagull by Anton Pavlovič Chekhov.

The seagull was studied at the same place in the 90s of the last century by Petr Lébl, who is no longer alive. He burst onto the professional stage at a time when stage postmodernism was at its beginning, and therefore soon amazed or, on the contrary, outraged not only the theater public. The intermingling of genres, the deconstruction of the original, and boundless irony and fantasy defeated serious-minded realistic creators, who eventually “desecrated” even the adored Chekhov. Lébl took up several of his texts, including Racka, for which he received the Alfréd Radok Award in 1994.

Today, syncretism, or connecting the unconnected, is a common principle that some creators profess without feeling like a postmodernist. It is all the more difficult to find a new form for Chekhov, which is called for by the character of the young playwright, the “Russian Hamlet” Konstantin Treplev, in Rackov, a play with an artistic theme. His fate represents the main axis of the story.

The Seagull from 1895 takes place in the Russian countryside. Several characters deal with disappointment in life, unfulfilled dreams or unrequited love. They blame each other for everything they can, make their existence miserable and fall into more and more apathy. At the beginning, consumed by artistic ambitions, Treplev tries to impress his mother, the famous actress Arkadinová, and to win the love of the landowner’s daughter Nina Zarečná, whom he casts in a home performance of his theatrical debut.

Putting the Seagull right on the Railing is a multiple commitment. The text itself contains the theme of scenic routine and worn-out conventions, all compounded by the play’s long staging tradition and precisely Lébl’s version from the 90s. Perhaps that is also why the management entrusted the novelty to Jiří Havelka, a forty-three-year-old representative of the generation of the zero years associated mainly with author’s theater and experimentation. The public knows the actor, director and presenter from the Vosto5 theater projects or as the author of the films The Owners and Extraordinary Event. It is quite possibly the first time he encounters modern drama, fixed characters or replicas.

On the railing, they save words for a long time, in their author’s work they prefer sketchy images with a message here and there to comprehensive speeches. The tendency is also manifested in Rack, which the dramaturg Dora Štědroňová reduced to the necessary minimum. She retained only seven of the original thirteen characters. However, the abbreviation is effective and, together with the pictorial divisions between the acts, which represent Chekhov’s famous meaning-making pauses and confusions, it also has an interpretatively logical effect.

Johana Matoušková plays the landowner’s daughter Nina Zarečná. | Photo: KIVA

In Havelk’s version, not only do the characters, following the author’s example, not talk much to each other, as if they were not even present in spirit or were completely asocial. The trait is most pronounced in the dramatist Treplev, who was portrayed with great accuracy by Vojtěch Vondráček as a person reminiscent of an autistic person.

There have also been some shifts in others. In Jana Plodková’s unpathetic performance, Treplev’s mother, the introspective actress Arkadinová, is more of a civilian study of a woman going through a midlife crisis than an affected heroine. Her lover, the established writer Trigorin played by Jiří Vyorálek, acts as a perfect slipper without an opinion of his own. The figures are mentally absent in the situations, which paradoxically enhances the fact that they practically do not leave the scene – and this in turn strengthens the overall strongly grotesque character.

Everyone was crammed into an extremely small room, furnished to the last detail in the spirit of 19th century realism. In addition to the pictures on the walls, lace curtains and porcelain behind the glass, there is also a rifle that Treplev uses to shoot the seagull. The famous weapon, from which, according to realistic laws, a suicide shot must fall at the end, however, will remain untouched in On the Railing this time. The stormy sea level provides the conclusion.

The seagull that Nina tells Trigorin about in the play is a bird found near water. The scene of Dada Němeček is also based on this: although it looks like the salon of a country estate, it takes the form of the upper deck of a gradually sinking ship. With each partition, the platform rises a little more until the actors literally have to balance their vertical position. If they move, they tragically slide down the slanted stage along with other objects on the stage.

Even the natural corner, which initially serves as a backdrop for Treplev’s theatrical performance, does not remain the same. An idyllic corner of birches and grass lazily swaying in the wind gradually turns into an exhausted and faded landscape as a metaphor for the destruction of the personal plans of the two young heroes, Treplev and Zarečná, as well as the entire civilization destroying the Earth and thus approaching nothingness.

All of Chekhov’s plays contain an ecological tone, but not all directors pick up the gauntlet.

It is through the initially minor changes of the seasons that the creators indicate the changes between the acts. Although the partitions are without words, thanks to the impressive images they evoke the largest share of emotions in the entire production.

Theater On the Railing has grasped the Seagull with a clear key, however many will contradict it with an argument that has been used many times before. After all, the inclined surface was used by Petr Lébl when he situated the dialogue between the characters of Jelena and Doctor Astrov in the production of another of Chekhov’s plays, Uncle Vanya, on the roof of the house.

Jiří Havelka attempts a revision of modernity, which he performs in the outer settings of Chekhov’s reality at first, but breaks it down by shortening the dialogues, stage intervention, and above all by completely different acting from that of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.


Anton Pavlovich Chekhov: Seagull
Director: Jiří Havelka
Theater Na zábradlí, Prague, premiere on March 20, next reruns on April 5 and 27.

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