Physical theatre company Volcano pour cold water on set design restrictions in Seagulls

Anton Chekhov set much of his 1896 classic The Seagull on an outdoor stage near a lake. Those with an eye for detail will observe that the play does not actually take place in the lake. That, however, has not been enough to stop director Paul Davies. In his free version of the landmark Russian play, he’s flooding the theatre, forcing his five actors to strip down to their underwear and making them wade through several inches of water – 45 tonnes of it.

“For me, it was important to have water to challenge the actors and give the audience a real visual experience,” says Davies. “The water is pretty cold.”

After a quarter of a century working with the physical theatre company Volcano, Davies is well versed in this kind of punchy mash-up of the classics. Since the company’s recent takeover of a former Iceland freezer store on Swansea High Street, it has had the chance to build the kind of sets that are usually considered impractical for touring.

“Our theatre in Swansea, the Bunker, has a two-tier raised element,” says Davies. “When we thought about doing Seagulls, we just looked at it and went, ‘It’s set by a lake, let’s flood it!’. We can do anything in this space and don’t need to worry about how we tour it.”

When Seagulls struck a chord with audiences, however, they realised they’d like to tour it after all. The decision to bring it to the Edinburgh Fringe as part of the British Council Edinburgh Showcase is a deliberate test of the company’s resourcefulness. So just how impractical is it? “The weight of the water is significant, but it’s only up to mid-calf,” he says. “We’re trying to persuade theatres that they could take more risks in terms of design with shows like this.”

Of course, the Fringe, with its conveyor-belt turn-around times, is not given to complex sets. For that reason, Volcano is taking over the former St James’s Church in Constitution Street to allow it to stage the show, which also requires the actors to fly from ropes over the heads of the audience.

“The play is about what is modern and what isn’t,” says Davies, pointing to Chekhov’s dramatic clash between the old generation, symbolised by the actor Irina Arkadina, and the younger, embodied by her son, the experimental playwright Tréplev, and the aspiring actor Nina. “My sense was that they’re all Nina, really. They’re all trying to escape to Moscow, as in The Three Sisters, but can’t.”

With a suitably hip soundtrack, including Arvo Part, the Clash, the Durutti Column and Frank Sinatra, Seagulls aims to be invigorating to fans of Chekhov’s classic, while also being engaging to first time audiences. “I’ve tried to turn this play inside out and show what’s never shown,” he says. “In Chekhov, everything is supposed to be interior, felt and unsaid. Most of Volcano’s work has been about challenging everyone and say, ‘This is a bodily experience that we’re all having’. It’s uber-theatrical.”

WORDS Mark Fisher   

PHOTO Phil Rees & Dylan Evans


Seagulls, The Leith Volcano, 8–26 August (not 14, 21), 6pm, from £6 Tel: 0179 246 4790

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