Branagh Leads Ivanov Invasion

The Evening Standard, 18 September 2008
By Nicholas de Jongh

Not for many years has there been a more exciting invasion of London's commercial theatre world than the one launched last night in triumph by Michael Grandage. He initiates the Donmar studio's year-long residency at Wyndham's with a near-revolutionary, powerfully acted production of Anton Chekhov's early tragicomedy: a commanding Kenneth Branagh as the Hamlet-like hero collapses a male menopause and mid-life crisis into one long nervous breakdown and a marriage to his Jewish, dying, tubercular wife that crashes on the rocks of infidelity and insolvency.

Ivanov, the first of four classics in this Grandage season, gives an inspirational boost to a West End where the streets are lined with musicals. Written in an early, uncertain flush of genius when Chekhov was 28, it reports from the world of impoverished landed gentlefolk who lack the commercial flair or the will to save their estates from collapse.

Traditionally British directors romanticise Chekhov's people, characterising them as hopeless but charming losers, as accidental comedians and voluble drunks, visionary aspirers and farcical eccentrics.

Grandage, though, takes a fresh and searching view of them. There is no roseate glow and plenty of melancholic laughter at Malcolm Sinclair's bleakly amusing Count, wallowing in disappointment and drink or Kevin R McNally's rich Lebedev, similarly inebriated.

This Ivanov is coloured with the elements of black comedy, glancing satire and tragedy. Thanks to the director and to the vivid eloquence of Tom Stoppard's new version, which is marred by occasional, glaring modernities, a strong impression is conveyed of provincial Russia where boredom, malice, sadness and selfish egocentricity is soothed by alcohol and almost Beckettian parties. Notes of anti-semitism disquietingly resound as well.

Christopher Oram's design brilliantly sets the stridently sombre mood, shrouding the view of Ivanov's estate in mist and nothing but bare earth. A crepuscular study, with bricks poking through wallpaper, resembles just a shabby shed. The scene at the threadbare home of his rich neighbours, the Lebedevs, to whom Ivanov goes in escape from boredom and the wife he no longer loves, resembles a wake. People sit around in glum silence and a dimly lit parlour, consumed by boredom.

The crucial narrative line charts the course of Ivanov's marital collapse and breakdown. Buoyed by an excess of self-loathing, selfpity and existential angst, this unlovely man rejects Gina McKee's fine, pitiable Anna: her eyes grow huge with horror when Ivanov confesses she has little time to live and in dismay she catches him canoodling with Andrea Riseborough's shrill, common Sasha. No wonder Ivanov ends up beset by guilt which Tom Hiddleston's angry young doctor earlier tried to incite.

The starrily talented Branagh strikes me as fundamentally miscast. His Ivanov remains strangely phlegmatic, morosely grounded and introverted, while Ivanov should forever jangle with nerves and shimmer with emotion. Just once, when offered money by Lebedev, Branagh poignantly loses control,when he sinks slowly to the ground, curling up in humiliation and grief. The production and ensemble acting more than the star make the night so memorable.

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