Ivanov: Branagh's Brilliant Mid-life Crisis

The Daily Mail, 19 September 2008
By Quentin Letts

Compliments can easily be overdone in reviews, but with his return to the West End this week, Kenneth Branagh has delivered an astonishing performance.

Playing Chekhov's unhappy Ivanov, as great a portrait of the male midlife crisis as exists in theatre, Mr Branagh shows that all the promise of his youth has come good. He makes it look easy, but this is a world-class talent.

And for it here to be put to the depiction of fortysomething failure! The perfect twist.

Landowner Ivanov has gone through his money and fallen out of love with his dying wife, Anna. Gina McKee often irritates me, but she makes a good consumptive, once she has remembered to stop being a glamourpuss.

This childless Ivanov, writhing against the onset of his autumn, finds he cannot stop raging at the world. He bawls at his servants, at his drunken friends, at himself.

In Sir Tom Stoppard's sizzling, richly colloquial new version Ivanov is 'a bedraggled old cross-patch' with the 'morals of a magpie', a debt-worn gentleman farmer whose neglected land looks back at him 'like an abandoned child'.

I suspect many an overworked baby-boomer feels strongly like Ivanov.

Sir Tom does not descend, thank goodness, to the modern quasimedical term 'stress', but one look at the tousled Mr Branagh is enough to tell us that Ivanov is riding low in the water.

Chekhov leaves the audience to judge Ivanov. Is he a dowrychasing swine, interested in women only to settle his bills? Or has he honestly mislaid his love for the Jewish Anna, who even surrendered her faith to wed him? Is Ivanov bad company?

His friend Lebedev (Kevin McNally), listening to outpourings of self-pity and misery, snorts: 'You turn life into some sort of modern art gallery.' This won a big laugh. How encouraging that London theatregoers should be so scornful of the Serotas and Saatchis of this world.

Yes, Ivanov is heavy company. But is he not perhaps a great deal more invigorating than the bores of the local bourgeoisie?

Michael Grandage's fast-paced, beautifully gossipy production, which is just the sort of show the Royal National should be staging instead of all that Katie Mitchell rubbish, has sumptuous music and sets. It opens with a farmyard bathed in blue, wheaty light. We move to the constipated salon of Ivanov's neighbours where the tick-tock of a clock seems to regulate the conversation. Superb card-table scenes. Then we see Ivanov's study, hung with dead game and its skylight mottled by damp.

A fine cast includes Lorcan Cranitch as the gamekeeper, Malcolm Sinclair as a roué uncle and Andrea Riseborough as the besotted young Sasha.

Above the whole thing towers Mr Branagh, dropping genuine tears when he crumples under the strain - and managing not to flinch when some first-night moron's mobile telephone threatened, a moment later, to wreck the magic of his total commitment.

Performance of the year? Without a doubt.

We have missed him on the stage and are lucky to have him back.

Verdict: Superb Branagh back where he belongs

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