Finding the Funny Side of Chekhov?

Camden New Journal, 18 September 2008
By Simon Wroe

The Wyndham's Theatre reopens with the Donmar's West End season and expectations are high. Even London's noble fire brigade arrive in force to put out a non-existent fire.

Tom Stoppard has adapted Chekhov's portrait of an insufferable and bewildered man living with his peers in the last days of the landed gentry in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Kenneth Branagh is Ivanov, married to Anna, a frail Jewess who has brought no money to the marriage from her parents. Their failing estate practising 'scientific farming' is dying, like the decaying feudal system. Change is in the air, and they live off social status and increasing debts and loans.

Borkin (Lorcan Cranitch), Ivanov's steward, is the fixer and ultimate realist; a fine blend of charm, guile in Cranitch's hands.

A visit to the more affluent neighbours, the Lebedevs, brilliantly captures the tedium of local society, playing cards, gossiping, flairing tempers, and sex just beneath the surface. Boredom is the prevailing passion.

But Stoppard's approach releases the humour and absurdities which are often very stifled by a funereal attitude in 'tragic posturing' by some Chekhovian actors.

Branagh's realism is absorbing. His only way out of his emotional and public entanglements is effective and unsentimental.

Malcolm Sinclair, Ivanov's uncle Shabelsky, and Kevin McNally's Lebedev as the two old elders of these neighbouring families evoke affection rather than sentimentality, locked into a stifling end game. They have shared the ups and downs of life since boyhood.

Michael Grandage directs this fine ensemble, weaving the fabric of Chekhov's sharp observation around Christopher Oram's design. Thank God there was not a samovar in sight.

In the 20 years after this, Chekhov's genius flowered with The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and ultimately The Cherry Orchard. I think he would have endorsed this version, which captures the ennui, despair, absurdity, exuberance, volatility, and hope he saw in the Russian spirit.

And at affordable prices too, thanks to United House.

Kenneth Branagh will direct Jude Law in Hamlet at the end of this season. He clearly sees that Ivanov and Hamlet lived parallel lives.

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