Culture & Conversation

The Seagull at Segal

Peter Hinton is an award winning playwright and director. From 2005-2012, he was Artistic Director of English Theatre at Canada’s National Arts Centre in Ottawa; prior to that he was an associate artist at The Stratford Festival for seven seasons and then more recently directed at the Shaw Festival. For the Segal Centre, he directed A Night in November by Marie Jones, Buried Child by Sam Shepard, and his own adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. Peter was the 2012 English recipient of the National Theatre School of Canada’s Gascon/Thomas Award for significant achievement in Canadian Theatre, and in 2009, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. I met Peter in the lobby of the Segal Centre.

Rover: You’re living where?

I live in Niagara on the lake. It’s very quiet very peaceful and it has been a kind of inspiration for The Seagull because there are a lot of retired people and it used to be the old “fruit belt” and in its day it was all about canned juice and canned cherries. That all bottomed out and then these wineries have bloomed everywhere. There is a whole new moneyed class moving in. So there is a real shift in that town between the really old rural Ontario fruit belt people, then high end money people, retired people and theatre people. It really is Chekhovian.

When I was asked to do The Seagull I didn’t have an agenda about “Oh I must do my own version, I didn’t hate any existing versions. I struggle with Chekhov over two things; the Russian-ness of it, and the nineteenth century-ness of it.

The Russian-ness of it?

Yeah. I feel that Chekhov was writing contemporary plays in his country for his audience. That is against the French plays of the time; La Dame Aux Camellias against the popular tradition.

So he was more specifically Russia.

Yes and again when he quotes Turgenev or Pushkin or Dostoyevsky, he’s quoting something familiar to that audience. There is a joke in The Seagull where Nina quotes a very famous poem by Turgenev and she says “Who wrote that?” This would be funny to an audience who all know the poem and it says something specific about her. It’s like saying: “Are you going to Scarborough fair parsley sage rosemary and thyme. Who recorded that?”

The nineteenth century-ness; in production can, not always, but it can lead to a kind of nostalgia. Like the birch trees and the long white linen outfits and the parasols. It can all get very romantic and lose the freshness of it.

The edginess of it.

Yes the edginess of it. The contemporariness. Chekhov is so unique. We have appropriated all the elements of naturalism and realism.

Because he was the first. We always forget about pioneers; they get all of the blame and none of the credit.

It’s true. I always think of impressionist painting. There was a time when it was thought to be pornographic and outrageous. Now it’s fridge magnets and calendars.

Or Che Guevara on a T shirt. Do you think Chekhov has suffered the same fate?

Well in practice you can do these plays in Russia in the nineteenth century, and do them beautifully. I wanted to explore the experiment of “can you set it now, and can you remove what’s Russian and how will this play?” So I followed Chekhov I didn’t add things that aren’t there really. I made some choices, like when Chekhov talks about a real actor, I talk about a real actor. I love the story that in the first production, the actress who played Arkadina knew the actor whom she refers to in her first             entrance. When you say that was the guy Chekhov wrote about, we don’t have the same reaction to that name. Arkadina is jealous of Eleanora Duse. So in this version, she is jealous of Helen Mirren and the actor they talk about is Christopher Plummer. Arkanina was in a festival so here it is Stratford.

So if Chekhov invents somebody, I invent somebody. I was just trying to follow that through and see how that would play out.

That is exciting.

Try to see about it being modern.  Like the way we do Shakespeare; we don’t always do them in pumpkin pants and ruffs. Sometimes we can…

I have always thought this of a good translation of Chekov: the language carries the story. It may not be Shakespearean, but it has a sort of rhythm and pattern and imagery that has some of the depth of a Shakespearean work. Then there are a lot of monologues….

It is gorgeous, and then there is this incredible thing he has of people suggesting a whole other world… the subtext or whatever. It is so beautiful. 

I guess I didn’t want it to be nostalgic I wanted it to be modern. The play is very modern to me.

That makes even more sense in the context of the Shaw festival.

Yes it has become nostalgic, but when you think about what Shaw was trying to do in his time. Yes so that was what I was trying to do in this production, and did you know that Chekhov has never been done here, ever.

At the Segal?

At the Centaur yes, but they never did it here. And why do people have this idea that it is all lugubrious, and heavy?

Because Stanislavski came along and developed his methodology and that is heavy. Then you think Freud, and associate him with Chekhov. It gives you all that linear thinking, and the play is certainly not a linear event. Chekhov wrote his plays and stories without the assumption that there would be a Stanislavski to interpret them. He must have believed that the actors would do something close to what he was imagining and the brilliant thing was that they could.

They could. Incredible and he left us these incredible plays that really defy description. They are that original to me.

They do have this freshness. Every one of us who has been in the theatre has had some experience with Chekhov. I directed Uncle Vanya and played Olga when I was too young to get it. My father said you need to understand the comedy.

It is both though. I find it has to have the comic perspective and the tragic that is always lurking about. What’s often funny is that the characters think that they are in a great tragedy, and more than they are.

When I moved back to Montreal from Colorado I was at my parent’s house one day and my father stormed in and asked: “What are you doing?” I responded that I was writing a play. He then said: What for? You’re not Chekhov!” That became my mantra: “I’m not Chekov cha cha cha.”

We were rehearsing a scene in the play where one of the characters is on the verge of death, and is telling a story. Only in Chekhov can you say: “You’re riveted by it, you totally don’t get it. You’re bored by it really,  In the middle of the speech you get up and say I don’t know what the hell she’d talking about, and leave. Someone else is totally moved by it. That’s what you keep shining a light on or opening up. Shakespeare and Chekhov are the playwrights of actors. They’ll go to the greatest effort to achieve and realise and there is something in that writing that demands the most of them. That’s what I love about it.

I am truly happy you are doing the Seagull here. We need some inspiration.

Well I do love doing it. I love doing it. It’s very theatrical and very non-theatrical at the same time.

Finding the contradictions in the play and letting the centre hold.

Especially in a play that is about theatre and writing and acting. Here is Constantine in 1896 saying things like “when you go to the theatre how old is the audience? Where are the young people? There are no young people.” It is so amazing that Chekhov is writing about this over a hundred years ago. What should theatre be? Is it for the audience is it to challenge them?

What we forget is that he was the first to ask. We take it so much for granted.

He worked in theatre for a long time, and he was a critic as well. He was a doctor. All the characters talk like doctors. Constantine says: “The audience is sick and we are to heal them.” I am fascinated by the idea that was in the air in the late nineteenth century…the dialectic of idealism and reality. People often talk about realism and naturalism as being in opposition to art.

The people, who were idealists, were fomenting revolution. The so called Realists had just given up.

Idealism was a dangerous thing.

It was, it could land you in Siberia or Switzerland. We are talking about czarist Russia.

Just think about what is happening in Russia write now. The opening of the show coincides with the opening of the Olympics. So we’ve got Constantine wearing a “Pussy Riot” T shirt. It is still current. Very current; these ideas about voice expression freedom.

Justice and freedom. My father believed that some time in your life you had to go through sheer utter ridiculous idealism.

Yeah, and what are the ideals you need to hold on to? What is the benefit of realism? It doesn’t necessarily mean cynicism or defeatism.  Like when we were auditioning the play, a lot of people referred to “Nina’s mad scene.” That’s a very romantic idea, that she goes mad. I think she is trying to come into consciousness. It doesn’t protect her; there is no reward for her. She may spend the rest of her days as a poor actress in the provinces.

Doesn’t every artist take these insane risks for just one moment of truth or beaut y or whatever?

Yes, and for all of its failings and for all of her horrible performances, when you get it right, there’s nothing better. She has also had this baby with Trigorin and the baby has died and she continues to love Trigorin. That’s her reality.

I think that’s her idealism. It is a nineteenth century image of woman.

Yes but when you have to play it in the present, She says: I still love him. In our production we are trying to show the imperfection of her reality. I love this man who does not love me and you can`t suffer all the time. It is so Chekhovian, so dark. That’s why Masha is so funny; she is attached to that idea of suffering. She just ends up becoming a school teacher’s wife.

I don’t think so, because what the characters don’t see, but we do, is the revolution around the corner.

I like that about the modern dress. That maybe there is a revolution around the corner that we can’t see either. We need ideals to bear the reality of life, but idealism can turn into a kind of fundamentalism.

Yes, like the Soviet Union.

So we have a famous actress and an aspiring actress in the country. Arkadina says no one in the country knows her and that’s why she hates it there. Yet at her first entrance everyone is waiting for her and yelling “You’re amazing!” But she does not value them. It is so idyllic and they all do not want to be there. We latch onto ideals when we want moral authority. Ibsen hated the idealists; the ideal that the truth must be told at any cost. That is what idealism invites, an absolute. It is full of platitudes, idealism.

There is a difference between using idealism and living it.  In most movements what appeals is the idea that you can be a better person than you actually are. It wasn`t about proselytising it was about self-improvement. But it burns out.

That is an aspect of it. Like Hegel said: Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better; they wound but they’re better.

The problem with Hegelian thinking is that it is linear, and life is not.

It is very helpful to use it in measuring the thinking of these characters in Wilde and Chekhov Shaw and Ibsen of how to approach the thinking of these characters. The idealism in St. Joan and  Arkadina.


For her, to be a writer or an actor is everything. What keeps it from being linear is to explore the danger of the professional and the value of the amateur. What appears as a limitation has great virtue. I can say I am just going to live on art, but if I am starving and I can’t function…

But we have done all that. It is the dues we pay. That is our reality.

The creative characters in the Seagull are torn between purposeless talent and diligent mediocrity. I love the idea of being torn between all this talent without purpose, or so diligent and mediocre. People who are diligently middle of the road.

The real issue is where you stand on the scale. It is controlled by fashion and other people.

Chekhov does this impossible thing: he starts the play with a play, which only one character likes.

We are all looking forward to this play.

Well good!   

The Seagull plays at the Segal Centre to February 16.

For tickets call 514-739-7944 or go here.

IMAGE: Andrée Lanthier

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