Anton Chekhov's Ivanov, in a new version by Tom Stoppard, Donmar West End at Wyndham's Theatre, London

  September 2008  
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Since the epic poetry of Homer, the harsh screech of an owl has symbolically heralded death and impending doom. The owl returns in the Donmar West End's fascinating production of Chekhov's Ivanov, its piercing note foretelling the mournful truth of the play's dark, uncompromising message. Dark? Uncompromising? In the deft hands of its adaptor, Tom Stoppard, and under the direction of Michael Grandage, Ivanov retains its depressing nihilism whilst embracing the possibility of redemption and good humour in the face of adversity. The result, a play which is slow to start but which accelerates to a crescendo both shocking and enormously entertaining.

The eponymous Ivanov is a Russian landowner who engages in what appears to be a standard practice in the late-nineteenth-century Chekhovian provinces, the art of marrying for money. Believing he will be financially secure by seducing his Jewish bride, Ivanov marries Anna Petrovna. Unfortunately, Anna's apostasy, her rejection of her Jewish faith and her conversion to Christianity, is met by an equally-violent rejection by her parents. Rather than financial security, Ivanov is saddled with the same debt and an unhealthy wife. Tuberculosis, a scourge which sent shivers through communities before the arrival of antibiotics, grips Anna's frail body.

To escape his despair, and his guilt, Ivanov runs into the arms of the innocent and, more importantly, potentially wealthy young Sasha (most notably a Christian like himself), whose post-pubescent adoration of Ivanov is idealistic and frantic. Ivanov sees Sasha as his financial and spiritual salvation. He also recognizes the debt he owes to Anna, whose love for her husband has never wavered. Ivanov's emotional turmoil, his guilty acceptance of fate, and his eventual self-realization and final act of selflessness, provide the narrative backbone to the play. His journey, though sounding dark and depressing, is peppered with the most raucous humour, not least with the inane and insensitive attempts by his friends and foes to draw him out of his introspective self-destruction.

So many times during the play, Ivanov likens himself to Hamlet. So many times, Ivanov assures those around him that he has all the anxiety of the Shakespearean prince without any of the humanity, Ivanov's actions veering closely on the side of moral turpitude. Chekhov has created a tragic figure whose tragedy is that he is not a hero, not a great man destined for a hubristic fall from grace. Ivanov could be any one of us, desperately seeking a way out of debt and financial turmoil. By an audience all too aware of the reality of economic depression, Stoppard's knowing dialogue was often greeted with openly ironic laughter. Little seems to have changed. The stakes might be higher but it is still the individual that feels the burden of economic downturn; it is still the individual who recognizes the political threat of a world without market security.

Grandage's directorial hands on the play are evident in many ways, not least the casting and the visual attention to detail. Christopher Oram's set-designs evoke a Russian realism which begins with a breathtaking view of central-Asian farmland stretching off into an unsure horizon. We are then led to the drawing room of a provincial home in which a careful wife entertains as cost-effectively as possible, an image which contrasts perfectly with the dishevelled bucolic hovel which Ivanov calls his ‘Office'. It is as if Oram has constructed his designs as old-master paintings in the Dutch school. Paule Constable's lighting adds to the painterly effect.

As for the cast. Kenneth Branagh makes his role as the tortured Ivanov appear so effortless. This effortlessness allows the audience immediately to engage with his character and to empathize with a man whose moral behaviour is more than suspect and whose spirit is in free-fall. It is the very ordinariness of Branagh's Ivanov which makes it so impressive.

Of course, the slow and debilitating depression of the principal protagonist is highlighted by the wonderful characters who surround him. Gina McKee's Anna Petrovna, the disease-ridden wife whose days on this world are numbered and who has financially so disappointed her husband, is hauntingly vulnerable in her beauty. Anna is cared for by her doctor, Lvov, played with passionate self-control by Tom Hiddleston. Lvov obviously adores his patient and his dislike for Ivanov explodes in the final scene.

Also in the Ivanov household is the old Count Shabelsky, played by Malcolm Sinclair. The audience loved Sinclair's portrayal of an impecunious aristocrat whose own financial salvation lies, like Ivanov's, in an appropriate marriage. Rather than sexually-intriguing male angst, all Shabelsky has to offer to his female counterparts is the enticing title ‘countess'. However, in a telling moment of throwaway dialogue, we see the humanity even of this character as he pleads for a loan to visit his wife's grave in Paris. Escape from marriage or true contrition? Shabelsky's good-natured drunken humour allows him the benefit of the doubt.

Shabelsky is aided by a Russian pander in the guise of Lorcan Cranitch's Borkin, an oaf of a man whose insensitivity is only matched by his duplicity and villainous scowl. It is obviously Borkin that has led Ivanov (and the count) to the home of Ivanov's long-term friend and ally, Lebedev. Kevin R. McNally is superb as the generous though hen-pecked Lebedev, whose wife Zinaida (Sylvestra Le Touzel) penny-pinches her way through the financial minefield of having a daughter, whose marriage is inevitably to be accompanied by a dowry. McNally plays the father, friend, and husband with a human vulnerability which appears in sharp contrast to Ivanov's depressive machismo.

Lucy Briers as the object of the count's financial lust is ravishing, as is Linda Broughton as the self-effacing grandmother Avdotya. It is Andrea Riseborough as the young and infatuated Sasha, however, who steals the show. Riseborough cavorts onstage with intoxicating glee. Her seduction of Ivanov is completely believable in its intensity and passion. Her falling out of love with the same man and her susceptibility to the infectious nature of his depression is also wonderfully portrayed by this young actor.

Ivanov, opening the Donmar West End season, provides a fitting launch to this exciting new venture. The West End is lucky to have such talent and such artistry to call upon. Ivanov, under Grandage's masterful control and with the equally-masterful dialogue of Stoppard's adaptation, is a great play. It will excite, it will entertain, and it will shock in equal measure. What more could any screech owl ask?

© Kevin Quarmby, 2008