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The Seagull Revisited: What's So Great About Kristin Scott Thomas?

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I finally got to see Kristin Scott Thomas's award-winning performance as the vain matriarch Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina in the current production of The Seagull on Broadway, and I must say that to my Chekhovian tastes, Scott Thomas was the weak link in the cast.

It's not entirely her fault. Ian Rickson directed the production with a light touch which brings out the nuances in a play that is often victim to overacting and melodrama. But Arkadina (as she is called in the script) is the one character who cannot afford to be softened, because it is up against her icy hardness that everyone else breaks. For the other characters to make any sense - her son Konstantin's self-torture, her lover Trigorin's moral dilemma, her brother Sorin's ineffectual whining - Arkadina has to be a true narcissist, incapable of giving except when it serves her. She drains others of their energy and self-will and fails to give them the love and support they need in return, driving them - especially her son - to despair. But in this production, the volume was turned down so low on Arkadina's self-absorption that the extreme behaviors of the people around her seemed unjustified.

On top of being directed astray, Scott Thomas made some curious choices. Her Arkadina was playful and cute, employing coquettish gestures and prancing in a childlike fashion across the stage. She almost seemed to be flirting with the audience. It made her fun to watch, but seemed ill-suited to a woman that is supposed to be a fading diva past her prime. But this is also a casting problem: Scott Thomas is just too young and beautiful (not to mention in the prime of her Hollywood career) to be believed as a fading anything. Her girlish charm was out of joint with her character's panic over losing her boyfriend to a younger woman and her nostalgic longings for the old days when she was in the spotlight.

Scott Thomas does lovely, subtle work on screen. Her latest is "I've Loved You So Long" in which she not only truthfully conveys the inner torment of a woman with a past, but does it all in fluent French! But one of the problems with Broadway's penchant for casting film stars is that the subtleties of the screen do not always translate to the stage. This is especially a danger in performing Arkadina, who is herself a famous stage star, meaning that the actress playing her must play an actress. Rickson's interpretation does some work towards humanizing Arkadina, and Scott Thomas has some winning moments in the role, but she lacks the power and presence to convince us that she has spent her life on the stage, or that she is someone with the gravitational pull to cause all the other characters to orbit her like planets.