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20 October 2017

Heisenberg and The Seagull: two new Simon Stephens plays go head to head

One of them is filled with speeches about what makes great theatre.

By Mark Lawson

For any dramatist to have two new plays opening within three days risks exposing default themes and techniques. But the coincidental UK premieres of scripts by Simon Stephens is a particular gamble because one of them is filled with speeches about what makes great theatre.

In Chekhov’s The Seagull, Trigorin aims to write plays that better (and bury) the popular entertainments that have made his mother, Arkadina, a star actress. Drama, the angry young man rails in Stephens’s adaptation, needs “new ways of thinking… new forms” rather than “wretchedly elegant” populism. So this accidental double-bill tempts playgoers to measure the theatrical theories explored in Stephens’s version of The Seagull against the practice of them in his own Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle.

A complication is that the playwright’s career is unusual for spanning stuff that Arkadina would like and texts Trigorin might write. Stephens’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a West End long-runner, but the writer used the resulting financial stability to create experimental plays, often workshopped in Berlin, such as the thrillingly original operatic nightmare Carmen Disruption.

Heisenberg attempts to keep a foot in both Stephens’s populist and Germanic territories. Almost unprecedentedly for a new play, it opens cold in the West End, launching a fresh venture for Marianne Elliott, who directed Curious Incident and was formerly an associate director at the National Theatre. It is also that most enticing of narratives, a love story – but one that, as the title warns or promises, aims to put physics into the physical. The German scientist’s proof that the act of watching alters the thing observed becomes a metaphor for the unreliability of what we see in someone else, or them in us.

Kenneth Cranham plays Alex, a 75-year-old butcher, who begins a relationship with 42-year-old Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) when she mistakes him for someone else and kisses the back of his neck as he sits at a railway station.

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But was it really an accident? In a Heisenberg-influenced rom-com, we must always be wary of believing our eyes and ears. Georgie is exposed early on as a liar, or at least says she is. Alex seems to be a genuine butcher because Georgie tracks his shop through a carnivores’ website, but there is a reading of the play in which her claim to have a lost son is just another lie. Alex’s account of his romantic history – alone for five decades after an early girlfriend spurned him – also feels a stretch to accept, but perhaps he is really married, widowed, or gay, but doesn’t want to say.

This insecurity about what we are seeing is true to the play’s title and concerns, but it’s still problematic. While Duff and Cranham bring energy and enjoyment to the exchanges, the nature of the play makes it hard for them to find the actor’s goal of emotional truthfulness. With movement interludes between scenes and Bunny Christie’s pretty and tricksy set of sliding panels, it isn’t quite “wretchedly elegant”, but the piece feels flimsy.

Especially, it turned out 48 hours later, in contrast with Stephens’s smooth rebooting of four colossal acts by Chekhov, in which Arkadina and Trigorin play out a version of the Hamlet-Gertrude relationship on a Russian estate peopled with many of the finest dying drunks, dodgy doctors, trapped provincials, and frustrated lovers.

Director Sean Holmes has opted for one of those hybrid period settings, in which the characters wear denim and Converse, but don’t have mobile phones and can’t get to the railway station if the blacksmith hasn’t been to the horses.

These time-slips cease to matter, though, because Lesley Sharp is so compelling as the grand theatrical who hates having a 25-year-old son because he thwarts her efforts to pretend still to be 30. This Arkadina is a histrionic exhibitionist but also clearly, when Sharp gives us a perky burst of her character’s Gertrude, a great performer.

As Nina, a young woman unfortunate enough to fall in love with two self-absorbed authors, Adelayo Adedayo has tremendous vocal and emotional nuance, underlining that, in a Hamlet-drenched play, Nina is a Russian Ophelia. Paul Higgins also impresses as Dr Dorn, a physician who has critically failed to heal his own depression and dyspepsia.

Of the two new Stephens pieces, The Seagull is the more certain pleasure. 

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” runs at Wyndham’s Theatre until 6 January; The Seagull” runs at Lyric Hammersmith until 4 November

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions