[Written for CultureWars.org.uk]
Ivanov is a young man’s play, Chekhov’s first - written when he was 27. It at once romanticises suicidal despair and ruthlessly rips the piss out of it. It is also a deeply Russian play. It is strange, then, that in Michael Grandage’s new production the title role is taken by the 47-year-old Kenneth Branagh, and transposes the characterisations into a recognisably English milieu.
Indeed, for much of the first scene – played against an unconvincingly painted drab sky with all the odd stage-y-ness that sometimes overcomes large casts of British actors faced with a proscenium arch and a classic text – it looks like the whole thing might miss its mark altogether. Branagh’s Ivanov seems too animated for someone who’s meant to be so depressed, while Lorcan Cranitch’s Borkin is just a bellowing muddle of accents and apparent alcoholism; Malcolm Sinclair’s Count Shabelsky acts like little more than a cardboard cut-out upper-class twit, and it is left to Gina McKee as Ivanov’s dying, tubercular, Jewish wife – Anna Petrovna – to inject any sense of realism into proceedings. Curiously, amongst all these heavy-weight, middle-aged theatrical big-hitters the young Tom Hiddleston as Anna’s doctor, Lvov, looks oddly slight. I’d had him down as quite a strapping young man, but here he looks as thin as a rake, and his character nervy as anything. He also speaks – perfectly audibly – at about half the volume of the rest of the cast. One briefly wonders if his degree of naturalism is going to overturn this whole applecart of over-theatrical showing off.
Gradually, though, as if by some strange alchemy, the thing starts to cohere. In the second scene, seeing the tensions and difficulties set up in act one discussed by a new set of characters brings the play alive. We know a little of this new set at Lebedev’s house from act one, so the interplay of these different perspectives sets sparks flying as this poisonous coterie bitches about Ivanov and his dying wife while trying to stab one other in the back. By the same alchemical magic, the style of acting suddenly comes alive. By the time Ivanov and Shabelsky arrive on the scene, their presence has been so neatly set up that we are as pleased by their arrival at the party as those on stage. What looked like Malcolm Sinclair playing Shabelsky as a caricature is suddenly understandable as Shabelsky’s presentation of himself using a brittle veneer of upper-class-twittery to hide a bereaved man soaked in self-pity and drink. Even Cranitch’s Borkin starts to make sense in this new wider context.
Branagh’s Ivanov is brought alive by these ever-changing refractions. What looked in act one like a surprisingly animated depressive becomes a man restless with self-loathing and rage against a world that has found himself hating. Describing himself as a “hand-me-down Hamlet” – a wry irony given how readily Branagh is still identified with the part – he lashes out at everyone around him, but mostly he lashes out at himself with lacerating, withering contempt. It is not his fault he has fallen out of love with his wife, and can no longer see the point in being alive. At the same time, he knows he is pathetic and contemptible for wallowing in this self-pity. Yet he seems powerless to change this destiny. In a beautifully judged moment, Lebedev comes to Ivanov and offers to lend him the money that he needs to pay off a debt he owes to Lebedev’s wife; we see Ivanov crumble from the inside out and sink to his knees weeping in despair. Branagh's is an Ivanov who can take almost anything except kindness. The offer of a lifeline drives home precisely how weary, flat, stale and unprofitable he finds the world.
Chekhov continually presents the characters from new perspectives. He is neither interested in allowing simple tragic heroism in so squalid and ignoble a world, nor is he content with merely poking fun, pointing fingers and apportioning blame. This is life at its most prickly and difficult. No one is beyond reproach. Some characters try to act with the best of intentions – although even good intentions are suspect – and make everything worse; others, wrapped up in a fog of self-pity, are at once both brutal and ludicrous. It is a harsh, painfully funny and all too recognisable vision of life. Stoppard’s translation creates a cannily textured dialogue with modern demotic expressions happily rubbing alongside more poetic passages, while neatly interweaving moments and quotations from Hamlet to underline Ivanov’s self-description.
Michael Grandage allows his production to swing from moments of sublime misery to points where the unhappiness tips over into absurd melodrama. Rather than attempting to over-egg a tragic pudding at the expense of the play’s comedy, or trying to level out the gloomier troughs of despair with false levity, the production lets particular audiences and individual audience members find their own meaning within the intricacies of a performance that allows for both the laughs and the sudden lurches. The final moments of the play, however, deliver an absolutely electric charge to the audience and the applause at the curtain call is as spontaneous as it is shell-shocked.