Sylvestra Le Touzel
Kevin R McNally
Donmar West End has kicked off with a stylish production by Michael Grandage of Chekov’s youthful first play, written in 1887 when the writer was 27. Rarely performed nowadays, it gives an opportunity for fine ensemble playing, as well as a grandstanding performance from its star, Kenneth Branagh.
As the self-styled “hand-me-down Hamlet”, Branagh’s is a beautiful portrayal of a man who, in more enlightened times, would be diagnosed as having a serious mental illness but who, to his contemporaries, appears merely selfish, vacillating and worthless.
Branagh scoops despair from nowhere and flits with lightning speed between disgust and a raggedy self-possession. His breakdown in Act 3, a slow silent crumpling, is very moving and his outbursts of violence and callousness shock in their intensity.
Priding himself on his honesty at every turn, Tom Hiddleston’s Dr Lvov, faces Ivanov with the truths that others choose to ignore, but in the earnestness of his self-righteous crusade, he fails to see beyond the cruelty and self-absorption. There’s an ambiguity of sympathy between these two men, stood on separate sides of a moral divide, which Grandage captures perfectly.
As Ivanov’s dying wife Anna Petrovna, Gina McKee has a scrawny beauty and, if there’s a one-notedness about her early scenes, the pale frailty of her final appearance is thoroughly haunting. As the other woman in his life, Andrea Riseborough’s Sasha is a twitchy slip of a girl but it’s a surprisingly mature and convincing performance from this young actress.
There’s strong support from a large cast, with Lorcan Cranitch’s oafish Borkin, Sylvestra Le Touzel’s grimly comic Zinaida and Malcolm Sinclair’s impoverished and washed-up Count Shabelsky all standing out. Kevin R McNally is particularly fine as the fatherly ditherer Lebedev, pulled in all directions from a desire to please everyone.
Designer Christopher Oram has produced atmospheric sets which draw inwards, like Ivanov’s declining mental faculties, only to re-open into brief light before a devastating denouement.
With wit seeping from the grimy floorboards, not to mention one or two downright knockabout sequences, the sure-fire touch and effortless urbanity of Tom Stoppard’s new version fully justifies Chekov’s description of his own plays as comedies. The high jinks, more overt than anything in the later plays, are balanced by a heart-wrenching portrait of a man at his lowest ebb.
There is some immaturity in the writing, tempered by Stoppard’s ever-present guiding hand, with a reliance on soliloquy, which the actors seem to play directly to the audience. It’s a technique Chekov was soon to drop. Theme-wise, though, he need never have written another play. He may have gone on to evolve the world of ennui into more eloquent and poetic expositions but all the essential Chekovian emotional states were there at this early stage.
As the first of a series of classics to be followed by Twelfth Night, Madame de Sade and Hamlet during the coming months – Ivanov has got the Donmar’s West End season off to a flying start.
Donmar West End is supported by United House