Highly Enjoyable Doom and Gloom From Stoppard

The Independent, 21 September 2008
By Kate Bassett

Everybody is caterwauling, yet we're at a wedding. Chekhov's early play, Ivanov, is an extraordinary roller-coaster of comedy and grief. In the last act of Michael Grandage's West End production – starring Kenneth Branagh – the titular despondent gentleman-farmer enters his young bride's family home to be greeted by a farcical cacophony.

His wavering betrothed, Andrea Riseborough's Sasha, is bawling along with her mother – who's heartbroken about parting with a dowry – and her completely discombobulated father, Keith R McNally's vodka-soused Lebedev. By the close of play, this is a genuine tragedy. Believing there is no chance of happiness regained, Branagh's Ivanov pulls out a gun.

Grandage's staging does not induce quite such extremities of celebration and despair. However, Ivanov is kicking off his Donmar company's big-name residency at Wyndham's (with Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and more to come), and it's heartening to see more commercial playhouses concertedly raising their standards. What's more, much in Ivanov is highly enjoyable. Tom Stoppard's new English version is vivacious. Cheeky modern colloquialisms rub along with the fin-de-siθcle Russian setting. Lorcan Cranitch is entertainingly rumbustious as Borkin, Ivanov's estate manager who tries to cajole the "chronic gloom merchant" into endless money-making scams. Malcolm Sinclair is rather splendid as the skint, devil-may-care Count Shabelsky. Tom Hiddleston also shines as the sanctimonious young doctor, Lvov, who is treating – and perhaps covertly adores – Ivanov's tubercular first wife (Gina McKee).

That said, several of the cast play their roles with an exaggerated gusto that belies, at points, all the talk about this backwater being cripplingly dull. A swifter and sharper sense of moral shabbiness, spite and deep despair is needed.

Branagh does not persuasively convey the numb lethargy of depression either, exuding an air of robust health. Nonetheless, his flashes of irritability and tender warmth are startling. There's an additional neat twist in having this actor – a famous Prince of Denmark – play this weary, provincial "hand-me-down Hamlet". Moreover, he will be directing Jude Law in Shakespeare's tragedy, to round off this Donmar West End season, in 2009.

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