Ivanov: High Praise for a Lowering Play

The Daily Telegraph, 18 September 2008
By Charles Spencer

Chekhov wrote Ivanov in less than a fortnight at the age of 27, rewrote it a year later, and believed it to be a failure even though it enjoyed public success.

Posterity has taken a similar view, regarding it as the runt in the litter compared with the four great plays of Chekhov's maturity. Even Michael Frayn, who has probably forgotten more about Chekhov than most people will ever know, has described the play as "possibly the most lowering thing Chekhov ever wrote".

It doesn't feel like that however in Michael Grandage's magnificent new production which opens the Donmar Warehouse's eagerly awaited, year-long season at the beautifully refurbished Wyndham's Theatre in the West End.

The play's central character, Ivanov, is a Hamlet of provincial Russia, once an idealistic and energetic young man but now the victim of a despondency and self-loathing that would be diagnosed these days as clinical depression.

Despite owning 3,000 acres, he's broke; he's fallen out of love with his devoted Jewish wife who is dying of TB; and he has embarked on an affair with a much younger woman and despises himself for doing so. You can see why Frayn described the piece as lowering.

Yet on stage the play seethes with vitality, caught in Tom Stoppard's new translation which is blessed with a combination of sharp wit and sympathetic humanity.

Compared with Chekhov's later plays the writing is sometimes crude. There is more than a touch of melodrama about the dramatic curtain lines, a vaudevillian quality to the comedy that includes one of the funniest portrayals of an all-male booze-up I've seen on stage.

And the play demonstrates the truth that all depressives know in their heart: life may be unbearable to the sufferer, but it is made even worse by the realisation that everyone else seems to be getting through it with enviable ease.

Kenneth Branagh is in magnificent form as Ivanov, combining the heartache of a down-at-heel Hamlet with the vituperative, self-lacerating rage of Osborne's Jimmy Porter. His cruelty, his weariness and his self-disgust are all unsparingly caught and yet Branagh also suggests the blighted beauty in the character that makes two women love him.

Grandage's production, with atmospheric designs by Christopher Oram and a terrific score by Adam Cork offers a feast of superb supporting performances.

Malcolm Sinclair is in his element as a deeply misanthropic old aristocrat without a kind word for anyone, least of all himself, as he cynically resolves to marry for money. Tom Hiddleston exudes a priggish self-righteousness as the doctor who likes nothing better than telling Ivanov just how badly he is behaving; Kevin R. McNally makes a superbly engaging and kind-hearted old soak, and Gina McKee and Andrea Riseborough are both deeply poignant as the unhappy women in Ivanov's life.

With first Six Characters in Search of an Author and now this outstanding Ivanov opening in the same week, the beleaguered West End finds itself blessed with two productions of rare distinction.

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