The Guardian, 18 September 2008
A lot is riding on the Donmar's new season at Wyndham's. If it works, it will prove what many of us have long argued: that there is still a serious audience for West End theatre if the pricing and packaging are right.
And the cheering news is that Tom Stoppard's new version of Chekhov's early play, directed by Michael Grandage and starring Kenneth Branagh, is everything one could hope for: not just another Chekhov revival but a richly intelligent rethink of a play that's actually had six major outings in the last 43 years.
The stock view is that Ivanov, written when Chekhov was 27, is a comic Russian Hamlet; and there is some truth in this. The title character is a moody self-loathing landowner up to his ears in debt and, in Stoppard's version, "the wrong side of forty" as opposed to the usual 35.
Having fallen out of love with his tubercular wife, Ivanov escapes nightly to the neighbouring Lebedevs to whom he owes money. But flight only increases his sense of guilt when Sasha, the Lebedevs' 20-year-old daughter, throws herself at him.
And when his wife discovers the two of them together he's widely suspected of being an adulterer without having had the benefits. Accused by his wife's doctor of being a heartless fortune-hunter, Ivanov is, however, finally confronted by an even more merciless critic: his own despairing self.
What Grandage's production brilliantly provides is the dual perspective that was to become Chekhov's trademark: above all, it reminds us that it is perfectly possible, as Uncle Vanya later proved, to be ridiculous and tragic at the same time. Branagh's Ivanov is alert to his own absurdity, at one point telling Sasha he's turned into "a hangdog parody of a literary cliche, the superfluous man". But Branagh also movingly brings out Ivanov's crippling sense of shame.
The great moment in Branagh's performance comes when Kevin R McNally's kindly Lebedev, dominated by his penny-pinching wife, covertly offers to lend Ivanov the money he owes them. McNally puts the eleven hundred roubles on the table with a nervous gesture. In one of the longest theatrical silences I've ever encountered, Branagh simply stares at the money before sliding to the floor in a wrecked, dishevelled heap. Branagh here touches the soul in a way I've not seen him do before; and what he shows is how his friend's pity is Ivanov's final undoing.
Most productions of Ivanov veer between farce and melodrama: the skill of Grandage's version lies in constantly allowing the comic and the tragic to bleed into each other.
The party scenes at the Lebedevs had a more riotous, Gogolesque humour in Jonathan Kent's 1997 revival. Here, however, there is a sad absurdity about the funereal pall that hangs over these nightly parties where even the fireworks are wanly festive.
Individuals too appear in all their Chekhovian contradiction. Andrea Riseborough as Sasha is both sexily impetuous and a collector of doomed souls. Malcolm Sinclair shows Ivanov's uncle to be a posturing cynic and a lonely widower. And Tom Hiddleston as the accusatory doctor emerges as a well-intentioned prig. The only fully tragic character is Ivanov's dying wife who is the object of anti-semitic scorn and who is invested by Gina McKee with a pale, desolate grief.
But everything about this production is first-rate, from the mossy decay surrounding Ivanov's estate in Christopher Oram's design to the melancholy, tolling bells in Adam Cork's sound-design. The play may not finally rank with Chekhov's later work where the real tragedy is that daily life has to be endured. The greatness of Grandage's production, however, is that it shows the seeds of the subsequent masterpieces being assidiously planted by the young Chekhov.