Reworking of ‘The Seagull’ takes wing
Whatever Chekhov had in mind, this piece of Afrikaans cinema speaks to the messy politics of entrapment
Chekhov, like most Russian 19th-century writers is always delectably transplantable to SA. Today, his more abstruse work, such as The Seagull, has gained even more resonance among those Afrikaner audiences grown used to allusive and elusive plays at the many arts festivals that have become the new centres of introspection for the volk.
The arts festivals have spawned the rebirth of Afrikaans cinema driven by former Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees and now KykNet chief Karen Meiring. Streets ahead of other directors is Christiaan Olwagen, who has cut his teeth with an already substantial resume of theatrically audacious stage productions.
Die Seemeeu is based on such a stage rendition, co-scripted with another festival stalwart, Woordfees chief Saartjie Botha. It follows Olwagen’s already cult-inducing films Johnny is Nie Dood Nie (whose characters look back at the days of the Voëlvry tour) and Kanarie (the story of a member of the SA Air Force choir in apartheid days).
Set in the 1990s, the location is perfect, one of those parvenu farms overlooking a dam or lake, with a half-hearted architectural upgrade somewhere in its past, and lots of redundant constructs. Among these the failed playwright Konstant (Albert Pretorius) puts his cringeworthy take on an Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet transformed into a seagull or angel, by attaching paper wings to the aspiring actress Nina (Rolanda Marais), also his focus of desire.
Their tortured relationship drives the play as the two sides of a love triangle, the other leg the hopeless and somewhat mysterious obsession of the farm manager’s daughter, Masha (Cintaine Schutte) with Konstant. Regular theatregoers know these three actors are dynamite, and Marais, especially, gives a haunting performance, holding back at certain stages, and letting go at others in her affecting portrait of the exploited naif whose heart gets expropriated with little compensation by the visiting writer Boors Barnard (Alyzzander Fourie).
Chekhov billed the original as a comedy, but history has turned it into a tragedy of class decay. If there is a point of criticism of the film, it is the overindulgent swearing. Sandra Prinsloo, who plays Konstant’s domineering mother Irene, his other love interest, is the chief culprit, and towards the end one wonders if Botha and Olwagen were trying to wrest the momentum back from the darkness of the truths about bourgeois inadequacies towards a more diffident cynicism.
Likewise, a wrestling scene between Prinsloo and Pretorius teeters on the verge of slapstick, but is saved by the deadly seriousness that underlies every action. In the end, these excellent actors sculpt the oedipal catastrophe messing up Konstant’s, and by extension, Masha’s lives into a fascinating, complex study of emotional dilemma, extruding the film from such threatening weakness back to the level of the universal.
Also in pursuit of humour are Piet (Marius Weyers), the retired judge who regrets the inaction of his life, and a handful of uncomprehending extras, all played with aplomb by stalwarts of Afrikaans theatre. Ultimately, the balance between dark and light is just right, and you don’t emerge from the theatre wanting to sell your house.
So what does The Seagull mean? Chekhov’s central symbol is infamous for its shifting references, sometimes to a real gull shot by Konstant, at other times to the theatrical prop that could also open the doors to angelic significance bestowed from the heavens. Nina declares herself to be the seagull, but Marais succeeds in conveying the lack of conviction behind the statement.
This indeterminacy is really the point, and 122 years, several revolutions and two world wars later it has come to stand for class precariousness and the faux tragedy of social ignorance. Olwagen’s long shots tracking characters strolling down to the lake shore add to a searching-for-answers ambience.
We are now 20 years on from the time of the film, and the indeterminacy has acquired some urgency in white bourgeois lives in SA. There is little that is overtly political in the film, and neither was there much in Chekhov’s creative work. But the images of entrapment ring true today and, in a sense, it is even worse than in the Russia of the time, stuck as we are in the ideological past, which shows no portents of the type of historical certainties that were waiting to erupt in 1917.
Overall, ex teatro, hovers the hot issues of today, land reform and transformation. One might venture that the transplant from 19th century doesn’t work because the younger characters would have long been away on work tours on cruise ships or studying in Massachusetts or even fleeing to Stellenbosch. But what Die Seemeeu shows is that perhaps whites are staying put because of the entanglements of romantic disappointment and allegiances to personal trauma rather than any patriotic attachment to land.
Whatever the case, this is a brilliant movie, and has easy-on-the-eye English subtitles. Go see it.
• ‘Die Seemeeu’ is currently showing in cinemas.