The Factory’s The Seagull: Improvisation is about doing things and Chekhov is essentially about people doing nothing – it’s a recipe for dire theatre

The Factory is a company that do what could literally be described as Flash-mob Theatre.  A facebook update is released on Friday about shows which are played out that Sunday and the precious 50 tickets or so sell with lighting speed because this is a troupe with a fantastic reputation for mixing it up in playfully irreverent but perceptive productions. Their latest production of The Seagull has been popping up around venues (some theatrical, though mostly not) across London for the last few months and it’s had some cracking reviews and great audience feedback.  So why were I and my friends left so non-plussed?

Having tackled Hamlet with great panache, The Factory’s off-the-cuff style, incorporating multi-playing (3 actors toss to see who plays a character each night) props taken from random audience belongings (at one Hamlet performance, a pineapple became Yorick’s skull) and improvised blocking, completely dampened Chekhov’s rapier social commentary.   The whole thing became diffused and by presenting us with a simplified version of the text it was slightly like a bad family drama, and we’ve all had enough Eastenders to last us a life time.  It is easy to feel this way about Chekhov’s work, just ask teachers who battle against bored teenagers year in year out, and indeed on many levels they are ghastly family dramas about mean spirited and self centred individuals. The brilliance comes in his precise and perceptively drawn characters, each of whom are whittled from life with minute detail.  It is in the moments when you absolutely recognise someone you know, or yourself, in these people on stage that Chekhov really pierces you.

Every word counts to get you through the mundane and skin deep unpleasantness of his characters into the painfully acute psychological studies that they are and to give you these moments of recognition. I’m not saying I’m a purist, Katie Mitchell and Martin Crimps’ key-hole surgery version at the National was a precise and minimalist masterpiece of this play, but then they were making it more specific and not less so; as she says ‘The text that emerged…was considerably shorter, leaner and more angular’.  But The Factory have decided to do a different version each night, which here means that it will always be improvised with the actors using their own words.  What has been created through this lack of structure is a convoluted and diffused production of a text that is full of light and shade, in a show which has become a muddy grey through this company’s constant need to ‘keep the ball afloat’.  This desperate need to maintain the base level of energy at all costs is also to the detriment of any detailed character work from these clearly talented performers.  There are no silences, no moments of real tension or pain, everything is slightly too comfortable because they won’t allow it to get dangerous.

The Factory’s anarchic and unabashed approach is to be applauded and encouraged, and Shakespeare’s writing was developed by them in a perfect marriage of text and performance in typically bawdy style.  However I think that Chekhov’s subtleties may be beyond this form of immediate theatre.  Maybe I’m wrong? But to get anywhere near it, they’re going to need to go right back into the text and dig a lot deeper, not discard it for a million and one improvised words.