‘I think he was the first character I’ve ever wanted to play as an actor’: Dominic Debartolo on Chekhov’s The Seagull

Sarah Gibbs talks to Dominic Debartolo, who is about to star as Konstantin in an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Dominic talks about the reception of the play and provides some advice for young actors.

Thanks for joining me today. You’re an emerging artist in London, can we begin with you telling me a bit about your background?
I was born in southern Italy in Rossano, which is in Calabria. It’s a very small town with less than 1,000 people, and I basically grew up in the countryside, so I had no idea of theatre and acting until I was sixteen. The reason I got into it was because my parents are photographers and growing up in the visual arts linked me to films and acting, and then to stage. As soon as I finished high school, I was meant to go to Rome but I then decided to go a different path and learn English and then be an actor. So, I came to the UK when I was nineteen. I took a gap year to study and learn English. Half-way through that year I started to audition for drama schools. Eventually, I did get a place, and I went to the Court Theatre, from which I graduated last year.

What attracted you to The Seagull?
Well, it’s a funny story, because when I first started acting I was reading a [Konstantin] Stanislavski book, and he mentions The Seagull, from when he was working on it. I became fascinated by the fact that it was written as a comedy, but it didn’t work when they staged it as a comedy. Then, Stanislavski adapted it as a tragedy, and it was so successful. I got very curious, and I read the play. That was the first play I’d ever read. And I remember just loving it. Konstantin was one of my favourite characters. I think he was the first character I’ve ever wanted to play as an actor. Also, back then I could relate with him very much in terms of his relationship with the mother. Then the opportunity came along, and it was amazing. I thought it was the time for me to do it.

Did the role of Konstantin present any special challenges?
Well, the thing about Konstantin is that he’s such an idealist. He’s got his own philosophy. He’s very stubborn and rebellious, and the fact is that he’s trying to propose a new form of theatre, a new form of art, and replace the old-fashioned form that he despises so much because his mother belongs to that form of art, and their relationship doesn’t really work. It’s kind of a hate and love relationship. But the society he lives in doesn’t allow him to [make artistic change]; it’s a very strict society. There is no space for new writers or new ideas, partially because they might be scared of a new generation taking over, and he just despises that, and therefore there’s so much conflict between him and his mother, and him and his lover, Nina, who is an aspiring actress, and who wants to be like Konstantin’s mother in the future. For him there’s so much emotional contrast and conflict. Any conflicted soul or troubled character is quite tricky to play. You don’t want to play them as a troubled character, or else it will seem typical.

It’s interesting that Konstantin quotes Hamlet so frequently. Do you think the quotation is ironic, or do you see actual shades of Hamlet in this character?
I think Chekhov is very clever here. There are some similarities with Hamlet: the relationship with the mother, the love and hate, and the fact that his mother has played Gertrude. I think her quotations from Hamlet are a way to keep him down, in a sarcastic way. She comes up with the monologue from Hamlet on the opening night of Konstantin’s play, and that’s just a way to tell him that what he wants to do won’t work. You know, “It’s rubbish.”

You mentioned Nina’s desire to emulate Konstantin’s mother, Arkadina. Yet, Konstantin doesn’t seem to have issues with that identification. Why do you think that is?
I think because he grew up with Nina, he sees her as a pure girl, with whom he shares a pure love, and he doesn’t connect his mother to that purity: she is all the opposite. His mother would step over any person to achieve her goals, and so, she would put aside love for success. At the beginning of the play, Nina is still very naïve, and doesn’t know how to get what she wants, which differentiates her from his mother. When she meets Trigorin, she starts to become surrounded by famous people, and she starts to understand what she wants to do, and what society she wants to be part of. Konstantin sees that, and as a means of protest, he kills the seagull. He wants to suggest that if she pursues Trigorin, she’ll also be destroyed. It’s not a threat. It’s a way of claiming attention and suggesting that she shouldn’t be like his mother.

What is it like to be an artist portraying an artist in a work that is so metatheatrical, and in dialogue with the artistic discourses of its day?
I love it. I mean, it’s a fun character to play. It’s a very simple character, but very conflicted.

Does knowing that the play was intended to be a comedy before it was restaged as a drama inflect your performance?
I’ve researched what people did in the past with the play, but I think it’s so subjective. It’s about the context, not just the characters or the lines. The context the play is adapted into is important. We’re staging the show as a tragicomedy, as it was meant to be performed. My take on the character is to try not to be too serious or dramatic, to keep some of the comedy. There are very comical moments, like the scene when his mother is wrapping the bandage on his head. It’s a climax because they’re talking about Trigorin and how Konstantin doesn’t like him. It could be very dramatic, but I’m trying to keep the comedy, and just snap at the end, as Trigorin enters reading lines that Nina wrote to him, and then just leaves. I think Chekhov is a genius in balancing comedy and drama. I think one can’t live without the other. The best comedy comes from drama, and the best drama comes from comical situations. With Chekhov, he gives the audience information that the characters don’t have. It’s very comical.

Is that combination of comedy and drama one of the reasons we keep returning to Chekhov?
I think there are plays that will never die. Shakespeare is an example. You can adapt him in any way. With Chekhov, it’s a bit different, because it’s set in the society in which he was born, and in which he’s living, but I believe that the way that he puzzled out characters and stories, and his cleverness in doing so, gives him staying power. He was ahead of his time. His plays often weren’t very successful, because they weren’t understood. Konstantin is his shadow, in a way. Being ahead of his time, his plays work even better today than they did two hundred years ago.

What is your preparation like, especially when you’re taken on such a well-known role?
It might sound weird, but I don’t have a particular pattern. There’s basic work that you need to do with a character, basic things that you need to know, but beyond that, I believe that every character and every playwright and every director is different. Therefore I try not to have an established way of doing it, and just adapt to what my surroundings are and the character is.

Do you refer to previous performances of a role?
No. If I do see performances of the same character, I try to remain distant or objective, and not to take too much from those performances. I don’t want to be influenced by another interpretation or be associated with it. Part of my job as a young actor is to bring freshness to a character, which may be where I’m connected to Konstantin. I do relate to him. I look at what does relate to me in him, and what doesn’t, and I try to bring the two together. It’s mostly an emotional, rather than intellectual, act. I like preparation to be an organic, natural process. I don’t want to make it too academic.

Does the experience of growing up in an artistic family give you a point of relation to Konstantin, who is surrounded by actors and writers?
I don’t know. When I was growing up, I wasn’t really aware of it. I was surrounded by pictures. I started working with my parents when I was eight. I took a camera and started to take pictures. And that was totally fun. The reason I wanted to do it was because, as a child, you need to identify yourself with something. Back then, it was visual art. I’ve always drawn, and I’ve always been very creative. I think I became interested in migrating to the other side of the camera. It came from an urge to express myself in a new way.

This is an English production of a Russian play, and you’re an Italian actor. Was it an interesting collision of cultures?
I like challenging myself. Tomorrow, I might be acting in Chinese. I don’t think language or culture should be an issue, unless you’re going for a very specific genre, like The Crown or Downton Abbey. When you get directors like Victor [Sobchak], who is very international, and who doesn’t have any cultural bias, it doesn’t matter. Victor isn’t from this country, and I think he empathizes with foreign actors. For me, I think it depends on the project you’re working on. Seeing as this show isn’t set in England, I thought, why not? Go for it.

For Chekhov veterans, what does this production offer that they may not have seen before?
We’ve seen modernized versions of Chekhov, but I don’t think we’ve seen a Russian director doing a modernized version of Chekhov. Russians tend to be strict about how Chekhov should be done. It should be period and traditional, but that’s not Victor’s take. Secondly, we’re also doing a tragicomedy, as Chekhov intended. He wanted a comedy with drama, and that’s what we’re going for. There’s also very fresh takes on some characters which I don’t think we’ve seen before.

Do you have any advice to offer other young actors taking on a classic role?
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Just do your work. Be prepared and do your research. It’s the same for any role. Make sure you know your background, but don’t be afraid to try new things. I need to experiment, otherwise I’ll never grow as a human being and as an artist.

Our thanks for Dominic for his time and providing such detailed answers. You can see Dominic in The Seagull at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre between the 11th and 17th June, 2018.

Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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