Friday, September 19, 2008

Ivanov at the Wyndhams, WC2

Chekhov’s Ivanov is usually seen as a practice run for the four masterpieces that followed it, yet fine actors have played the despairing title character: a self-mocking John Wood, a desolate Derek Jacobi, an emotionally volatile Ralph Fiennes and, at the National in 2002, a pathologically self-absorbed Owen Teale. So the play isn’t so surprising a launchpad for the season that the Donmar is presenting in the West End, especially as Kenneth Branagh brings such articulate melancholy to Tom Stoppard’s punchy, witty, if overfree translation.

At first Branagh’s Ivanov seems all wrong: a mild if morose gentleman farmer rather than the agonised Hamlet whom Chekhov aimed to create. But that’s the point. He’s a decent, none-too-remarkable man stunned to find that he has become a middle-aged fossil, out of love with work, world, the terminally ill wife who sacrificed her Jewish faith and family for him, and (above all) himself. He has succumbed to an ennui tantamount to senility of the soul, and can’t explain why, least of all to the most unChekhovian medical man that the forgiving doctor-dramatist ever created.

Chekhov was in an unwontedly sardonic mood when he wrote Ivanov, but none of the play’s provincials, not even the lady loan shark to whom Ivanov is in debt, is as unloveable as his Dr Lvov. As played by Tom Hiddleston from behind thin-rimmed glasses and even thinner lips, he delivers grim homilies when he should be prescribing pristine Prozac.

Almost everyone on show takes a cynical view of Ivanov – the play is in effect an attack on prejudice – but Lvov goes to moral extremes, deriding him as a “swine” who wants to ditch his wife so as to marry a rich girl.

The plot involves the decline and death of Gina McKee as that wife and Ivanov’s on-off attachment to Andrea Riseborough as that girl; but it’s the inscrutable psyche of the man himself that mainly interests Chekhov. The fact that he’s the victim of his time and place isn’t enough to explain the moment when, offered money by his only friend, Branagh pushes away the notes and slumps to the floor, a crumpled, weeping heap in mourning for its life. At that point he comes as close as an Englishman can to embodying the emotional blackness of a character Chekhov called “purely Russian”.

Michael Grandage bolsters his reputation as an actor’s director by getting fine performances from the (variously) ebullient, malicious and wanly affable topers played by Lorcan Cranitch, Malcolm Sinclair and Kevin McNally, but he’s equally successful at evoking a tiny, mean-spirited world where the diversions are playing cards, exchanging scandal and making antiSemitic remarks. And the sum effect is so glumly comic you’re left wondering how Ivanov could ever have been dismissed as minor Chekhov.

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