On the 1st of May, De Koelisse witnessed the opening night of NFK’s rendering of The Gull, Anton Chekhov’s four-act play. Through their journey of unrequited love and deferred dreams, the characters formed a relationship with the audience that nodded simultaneously towards suspension of disbelief and metafiction.
The smiling face of a member somehow connected with the play (director? actor? some supporting member?) hands out brochures to each new coming spectator. “Welcome, enjoy the performance” he says, so that once you read the words plastered on the first page of the brochure, they already ring quite familiar. The following lines are written, big and bold:
Welcome, you are about to experience
The Song of The Spirit
“The Song of The Spirit?” I think to myself. Wasn’t this The Gull? Am I in the right place? I read the lines in the bottom of the page. “A play by Konstantin Treplev. Starring Nina Zarachnaya” Okay. Got it. A play within a play. Alas, the play has began before I even knew, and these words make up its first line, albeit unspoken. Realization kicks in after realization: was that an actor handing out the brochures, smiling, very nice and all, or was it already a character? I feel betrayed. I feel intrigued as well.
On the flipside of the brochure is the poster of the actual play, but at this point I’m not sure which I will witness first. Inside the brochure, there’s an entertaining family tree that pre-introduces the characters. Love appears to be the most important theme; characters are connected to each other in unpretentious hand-drawn arrows and handwritten words: “Hates,” “loves,” “loved?,” “married,” “partners” and other kinds of relationship status alongside broken or unbroken hearts and rings around the pictures. On the other side of the paper, a quote by Chekhov: “In a play, above all, there must be love.” From the family tree, it can be deduced that he lived by his own words. The summary of the play and an introduction to each act provides a useful foundation and foreshadowing of events. Though not necessary, the idea is applaudable.
Finally, the lights dim, and so begins the show.
Of course, soon it becomes clear who the character by the door handing out the brochures was: Konstantin Treplev, played by Kamiel Ferson, a young man in love and in crisis, about to stage a play with his lover as the actress. The stage within a stage captures instant attention. After some anticipation and dialogue about the play in question, “The Song of The Spirit” begins. The other characters sit as spectators of his play, filling in our shoes in one row ahead of us.
Who is watching who?
At times, they turn back to take a look behind them, like Bert De Kunst’s Dorn, the enchanting doctor who, from the moment of entering the stage, establishes a deeper relationship with the audience. Alternatively, we observe the characters as they observe Treplev’s play, and when the audience notices Sofia Martelleni’s Masha continuing to be irritated by her suitor Medvedenko, played by Wodan Van Den Heede, they let out a big laugh.
Our foresight of Treplev fortifies the bond with him; this kind of introduction is bound to evoke empathy. Thus, his agony over never being enough for his mother is striking, and his jealousy of her acclaimed man of letters understandable. Once his mother, Arkadina, played by Marisa Salvador interrupts his play, the ensuing chaos creates an amalgam of tension and humor. Salvador may make occasional slips of the tongue, perhaps more occasional than the others, but the coquettish nature of Arkadina is conveyed so well that it more than makes up for it. Her attitude is coupled perfectly with her extravagant and constantly-changing fashion, entirely contrasting her son’s beloved, Nina.
Nina, played by Nora Van Hummelen wears only a long white dress that fits her wide-eyed enthusiasm for fame and glory. Her monologue in Konstantin’s play may be ridiculous on the surface, but the sincerity with which she offers it sets a melancholy backdrop against the absurdity. Nina eventually falls for the literary genius of Trigorin, who is brought to life in cool, aloof manner by Rita May.
For the Gull, two stages, the artificial stage within the main stage and the main stage, do not suffice. There is also a third area that the Gull’s characters make use of: in front of the closed curtains, centimeters away from the audience, creating an astonishing, anxious sense of intimacy. This is where Nina and Trigorin share a quick kiss before he leaves for Moscow, where they intend to reunite. At this point Nina couldn’t have cared less for the seagull Treplev has shot in her honor. Trigorin, triggered by the event, writes down the idea of a story, one in which a young girl is “destroyed out of idleness” by a man, just “as this gull here has been destroyed.” The story ends up foretelling Nina’s faith.
In the last act, the stuffed animal is presented to Trigorin who had once asked for it and now remembers nothing about it. The gull brings to mind the futile dreams of each character, both in love and in fame, whether they come to fruition too late or pass too soon for anything to matter. Meanwhile, Nina comes to Konstantin, this time battered in black attire. Van Hummelen forms a heart-wrenching performance out of Chekhov’s fanatic lines, incessantly forgetting what she aimed to say and repeating instead: “I am a sea-gull” and then variations of “no—no, I am an actress.” Once Nina leaves, the air is tense. Treplev’s raging anger is depicted by Ferson staggeringly well. But after a period of having been taken away by the play, in comes once again the life and the humor and the metafiction, the irony of it all.
When speaking of humor, it would be an atrocity not to mention Rik Ouwerkerk’s Sorin, who managed to get persistent laughs from the audience. A tongue in cheek joke, not in the original but added here refers to the ragged appearance of a character as “resembling that of a philosophy student’s.” The joke lands well in the crowd, who is made up mainly of, well, philosophy students. As the show goes on and Sorin gets more ill, his presence remains comedic while his condition becomes somber. Death awaits him, and will catch up to him just as it does with Treplev. For the time being, however, the characters are permitted to play a game, drink some alcohol, and reminisce over better days or regret the ones they never had. Life goes on as Dorn sings, even when a shooting sound is heard.
In the end, it is the right balance of irony and sincerity, humor and sobriety, dreams and death that Chekhov’s “The Gull” brings to the text, and this concurrence is translated to the stage(s) through NFK’s gripping performance.
The Gull was directed by Bert De Kunst, Ewout Decloedt and Gilles Verheyden, and it was performed in De Koelisse, Leuven on 1st, 2nd and 4th of May 2023.