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A CurtainUp London Review
Like many of Chekhov's better known plays, Ivanov portrays the ennui and money troubles of Russia's landed gentry. The Dickensian-style caricatures are set within a claustrophobic town populated by a small community and small minds. Christopher Oram's sumptuous sets encompass both this social outward-looking Chekhovian perspective and its limitations. He showcases a lavish range of designs, whether it is the epic scale and illuminated beauty of the panoramic pastoral background, the burnished wealth of the Lebedevs' drawing room or Ivanov's cluttered, down at heel study.
Kenneth Branagh's performance as the eponymous hero is the predictable talking point of the production and he encapsulates the role's broken-spirited disillusion and self-loathing with depressed sincerity. Crumpled in both clothes and psychological state, he exhibits an unassuming stage presence and avoids playing up to his celebrity status. Perhaps wary of creating a one man show, the audience only see the battered shell of the once great character and no spark of Ivanov's former charisma is allowed to peep through. Instead, this un-flashy performance relies entirely on the audience's awareness of Kenneth Branagh's offstage persona and prestige. Gina McKee is an unusually likeable Anna Petrovna, Ivanov's Jewish wife, unloved by him, cast off by her family and despised by most of society. Her geniality, humour and compassion destabilises the sympathetic balance of the play somewhat and causes Ivanov's abuse of her to seem crueller. Making the hero an absolute brute is a bold directorial choice and only so accomplished a production could have pulled it off: realising his savagely destructive depressed state without alienating the audience's engagement in his plight.
The rest of the cast add to the play's array of Russian parochial life in a series of brightly-realised vignettes. In particular, rising star Tom Hiddleston as the righteous doctor Lvov is earnest and heartfelt, and far less priggish than often played. Malcolm Sinclair adds some light relief as the frustrated, flamboyant Count Shabelsky, as do Lorcan Cranitch as the lovable scoundrel Borkin and James Tucker's poker-obsessed cameos as card fanatic Kosykh. Andrea Riseborough's Sasha is fun-loving and extrovert, and her melodramatically romantic love for Ivanov equally audacious.
Tom Stoppard's interpretation carefully navigates between the play's comic and tragic strains, skilfully embracing the bathos of this anti-Hamlet without allowing the variations in tone to jar. Along with Ivanov's emphasised heartlessness to his wife and the un-whitewashed anti-semitism of the overtly prejudicial society, this otherwise fairly conventional production has added bite. Moreover, Grandage's skilful direction focuses on lucidity and absorbingly profound performances, so that this production is both meaty and crowd-pleasing.
Editor's Note: For more about Chekhov, his work, including links to other Ivanov review, see our Chekhov Backgrounder.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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