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Rehearsed Readings, Writing and The Seagull Close

John Donnelly | April 16, 2013

The rehearsed reading gives the clearest sense yet of bodies on a stage – people – trying to do things to and get things from one another, rather than a series of talking heads showing off verbally. I do the voices a lot when I'm writing which gets you so far but hearing good actors, really good actors – as we had for the rehearsed reading of The Seagull – allows the play to emerge much more clearly. And this is terrifically exciting. It makes it feel real. Some kind of alchemy always happens when good actors read a play and I love that. I really love it. And some of those actors might be your friends, in which case, as it was here, you catch up and it's nice to see them and you make small talk and you delay hearing the play as long as possible because as well as that being the moment you're longing for it's also quite frightening.

It's a very nervy occasion. It's the first time anyone's heard the play. There's the very real potential for it to be met with an embarrassed silence. It's actually quite hard to hear it clearly for the first five or ten minutes, it's a real act of will to concentrate, because of the anxiety about the actors thinking your version is rubbish. Most of the actors, if not all, will have performed in some Chekhov at some point, almost certainly if they went to drama school – and they may well be comparing your version to Christopher Hampton's or Pam Gems's or whoever. There's a mixture of paranoia and vanity in that feeling which you just have to get over.

In very practical terms it was also important that Blanche McIntyre, the director liked it. More important still that it remained a version she wanted to work on. I'm not writing The Seagull  into a vacuum, it's come out of conversations with Blanche about the kind of version she wants to direct. This is very important to me as Blanche asked me on board.

There's no sense me reworking it in ways that sabotage her sense of the play. There's an anxiety about being so overawed with Chekhov's brilliance that you handle the play with kid gloves and do a 'safe' version. On the other hand, there's a kind of unspoken pressure to tear it up and move things around in a big way. I was certainly very tempted to do that. Not out of any perverse desire to ruin the play, but simply to help present something of its heart in the clearest possible way. But I think there can also be a pressure to do that simply to show you're not afraid of the classics. Which is a surefire way to show you are afraid of them.

Graham Coxon from Blur said about playing the guitar that sometimes you've got to love the guitar enough to play it like you hate it. I've always remembered that.

The main obligation with a new version is to make the play seem like a new play. You just have to get over that anxiety about seeming either too cautious or too willfully perverse. In the end I've ignored the other noise, and gone for a version that is true to my own sense of the spirit of the play. Which, certainly for me, is what draws me to The Seagull in the first place. I think it's a romantic play. A funny play. And I think one of the most fascinating things about it is its dark heart because it really is a dark play. The characters are often sentimental but the play isn't. The sentiment of the characters, the self-conscious romance they exhibit at times is always undercut by pragmatism. And when they do persist in pursuing a romantic ideal, well frankly it's brutal what happens.

It's a dark, funny, sexy play – really sexy. It's always had that kind of fin de siecle feel for me, that bohemian decadence. There's something really attractive about that world for writers – you see echoes of it in plays like Posh by Laura Wade or Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. Like that Yeats' line from his poem 'The Second Coming':

'Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world'.

This is what I think is at the heart of The Seagull.

So you start with these thoughts in your head and you end up with actors speaking words on a stage. And at various stages other things happen – some kind of set is designed, you work out what the actors are going to wear, what kind of lighting you want and so on. And one of these stages is hearing it read out loud. At which point all of these fine theories kind of go out the window and you try and get a sense of whether it sounds right and if it doesn't what you might do about it.

So. The reading is lovely and fun but it's also work – you're listening to hear what works, what doesn't, that kind of thing. Words which stick in the actors mouths. So it's a strange mix of wonder, fear and pragmatism. For me, anyway.