Anton Chekhov must have known, on seeing his first major play, The Seagull, produced in Russia in 1896, that when his character Konstantin, a young playwright, calls for new forms in the theater, the new forms he describes are actually older than the ones he advocates should be replaced. It seems a kind of folly not unlike Konstantin’s, therefore, to ask the Royal Shakespeare Company — performing TheSeagull and King Lear in repertory — to move beyond the traditions it emulates. One might as well ask for a new style of walking. Still, Konstantin is on to something, and RSC’s repertory at UCLA, even under commercial powder-keg director Trevor Nunn’s staging, appears locked into an aesthetic prevalent between 1930 and 1960, which the company is now touring like a flotilla called the Pride of England, led by Captain Sir Ian McKellen.

Sir Ian could crack his knuckles on stage and it would be mesmerizing, and here he does much more: His Lear reveals a precision of language and gesture, a specificity and humor in his actions, a slight rasp in his voice that tempers the grandiloquence of his delivery. We watch the proud old king’s foolish petulance yield to despair, then lunacy, as the betrayal by his two regal, viperous daughters (Frances Barber and Monica Dolan) sinks in. When, in rags, he holds in his arms the corpse of his one loyal daughter, Cordelia (Romola Garai), his head sinks back as he stares at the heavens and wails — stirring the ghosts of this company’s master-actors who wailed before him: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud.

Though the acting style remains locked to its language-based and slightly melodramatic heritage, various design ideas accentuate the play’s timelessness. In the midst of swordplay, rifles appear on soldiers costumed like the French army circa 1910. In one battle scene, Fergus O’Hare’s surround-sound design, in conjunction with Neil Austin’s blazing lights, have us believing that F-18 Hornet fighter jets are bombing Royce Hall. Given Christopher Oram’s sumptuous scenic design — a kind of 17th-century, faux-Venetian-marble backdrop with open gashes of scaffolding and an imported slatted-wood floor — one has to wonder why this production feels like such a slog. The playing time, three hours and 40 minutes, has something to do with it, but the production demands our reverence, as if we were in church. And despite Sir Ian’s playfulness and pathos, and many crystalline performances, that reverence wears thin.

The Seagull plays on a variation of the same set; Nunn’s traditional staging is faithful to its turn-of-last-century era. The uncredited translation is said to have been concocted by Nunn and company. The language is idiosyncratically British, with any number of liberties and variations taken on what Chekhov actually wrote, and the timbre is a pleasing blend of Beckettian ennui and vaudevillian shtick. In The Seagull, Chekhov is warming up for his later plays about the waning days of the Russian aristocracy, and the revolution that’s arriving. This play is almost entirely about unrequited love and the theater — homing in on playwright Konstantin’s (Richard Goulding) Oedipal jealousy of Trigorin (Gerald Kyd), a famous, mediocre and emotionally spineless novelist who’s captured the heart of Konstantin’s aging diva mother, Arkadina (Barber, in a gorgeously rich and misanthropic turn). The bigger problem for Konstantin is that Trigorin has also ensnared the heart of young actress Nina (Garai), whom Konstantin adores. This strikingly bipolar production soars in the opening — particularly Dolan’s pretty-in-black Masha (“I’m in mourning for my life”), the forlorn, sarcastic wife of the estate’s steward. Garai’s Nina and Kyd’s Trigorin, however, are stillborn, and when they share the stage, this Seagull slams into one of the birch trunks that Oram has planted on his set. Post-intermission come some of the most breathtakingly beautiful sequences of Chekhov you’re likely to find — tonal perfection led by McKellen as Arkadina’s brother, Sorin, slinking into old age with kindness and charm — before the production staggers again to an unremarkable finale. But that’s a quibble compared to the larger concern.

The RSC’s Seagull brings to mind the plight of the Moscow Art Theatre, which became Chekhov’s theatrical home. The artistic emblem of a nation, it too clung to the performance style of an era and its methodologies, until it became the (barely) living anachronism it is today. Cumulatively, Chekhov’s plays demonstrate the tug of time, and the tragic plight of people and institutions that resist that tug. Just when we assume there are no new ways to walk, or talk, directors such as Robert Wilson and Robert Lepage, and choreographers like Mark Morris, lead us artistically into a world beyond the museum. Some follow, some don’t. The Royal Shakespeare Company, presented by UCLA LIVE, Royce Hall, in repertory; thru Oct 28. (310) 825-2101.

—Steven Leigh Morris

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