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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Ivanov
Wyndham's Theatre Autumn 2008

Ivanov is not one of Chekhov's masterpieces - he wrote it in a rush and then wrestled with its problems repeatedly during his career - but it is a solid and frequently moving (and occasionally even funny) study in depression and emotional paralysis.

It is also a star vehicle, offering acting opportunities that Kenneth Branagh takes full advantage of here.

Ivanov is a landowner in his forties undergoing an extreme midlife crisis. He doesn't really love his wife anymore, he's deeply in debt, and life has no zest whatever for him. Even worse, he stews about all this, feeling guilty for not being more cheerful or at least functional.

To compound things even further, his wife is dying of tuberculosis and he can't pull himself out of his absorption in his own misery enough to tend to her - and of course he feels even worse because of that.

And then the neighbours' teenage daughter declares her love for him and insists she has the energy and devotion to bring him back to life.

Chekhov's greatness lies partly in his ability to show how lives are made up, not of grand dramatic events but of tiny, almost imperceptible movements up or downward. But even he is challenged by trying to make stasis dramatic, by showing that a man paralysed by his suffering is still moving dramatically in one direction or another.

You have to tune your receptors to their most sensitive to see - and respond as the author wants - to the tiny hints of change or of missed opportunities for change in the man. If you do, you will find much in the play to capture, hold and move you.

At the play's centre, Kenneth Branagh shows us all the man's suffering. Boy, does he suffer. There's a whole lot of acting going on up on that stage, and Branagh makes sure you don't miss any of it. If you demand your money's worth in acting, this is the show for you.

And to be fair, it isn't all flashy and external. When Branagh isn't showing off, he does let you into the character's pain, so that even when Ivanov's self-absorption is at its most annoying you have to retain some sympathy for him.

In adapting Chekhov's text Tom Stoppard has clearly worked hard to bring out all the humour in it, and we must credit him for some of the double vision that lets Ivanov seem both ridiculous and pitiable at the same time. Indeed, that is true of some of the other characters - and of the way director Michael Grandage has guided his actors - as well.

Andrea Riseborough repeatedly takes the lovesick young girl from adolescent sentimentality to clearheaded good sense and back in a single speech, and Tom Hiddleston lets us see what a ridiculous prig Dr. Lvov is even when he's being the voice of basic decency.

And most of the secondary characters - Malcolm Sinclair as Ivanov's impoverished uncle, Kevin R. McNally as a well-meaning but out of his depth friend, Lorcan Cranitch as a man full of money-making schemes - are played for unobtrusive comedy.

It is just possible that your reaction to this play will be to want to go up there, give Ivanov a smack, and tell him to get a life. But if so you will have missed all that everyone, from Chekhov through the entire admirable cast, will have worked to make you see - that even a man wallowing masochistically in his own unhappiness has something in him we can recognise and sympathise with.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Ivanov - Wyndhams 2008