He might not be Hamlet, but Chekhov’s everyman is played to perfection by a brilliant Kenneth Branagh

The Sunday Times, 21 September 2008
By Christopher Hart

Ivanov was Chekhov’s first full-length play, rattled off in just 10 days when he was 27, and its initial reception was poor. Chekhov later rewrote it, but it is still no Seagull or Cherry Orchard, which makes it a surprising but also unusual and admirable choice with which to kick of the Donmar’s year-long residence at Wyndham’s theatre, in the heart of the West End.

Ivanov was the playwright’s attempt to dispense once and for all with the type of “superfluous man” so dominant in 19th-century Russian drama and fiction, especially, perhaps, in Turgenev: the melancholy, aimless but relentlessly talkative hero, sitting out there on the steppe on his 3,000-acre farm, unhappily married and surrounded by mad relatives.

In fact, the type recurs again and again in later Chekhov, but here it is central, and Kenneth Branagh’s performance is key to the success of this production. It’s a brilliant turn, every gesture and grimace perfectly judged. Immediately, we warm to this troubled, imperfect soul, “crotchety and bad-tempered”, with a headache that has lasted for days. Later in the play, we see him in real despair, white-faced and hollow-eyed, crouching beneath his desk, visibly burdened as much by his life’s triviality as by its troubles. Add to that a tubercular wife he is too morose and melancholy to love any more (especially in the evenings - a sublimely bathetic, Chekhovian touch, that), an estate almost crippled with debt and his neighbour’s young daughter, who is strangely besotted with him, and you have the perfect recipe for a larky Russian comedy.

Ivanov knows he is a comic figure, too. He is preposterous, a nobody, a failure, but he has forgotten how to laugh about it. Yet “people should be laughing themselves silly at my carrying on”, he tells us - as does the author. This bitterly self-proclaimed “hand-me-down Hamlet” is all too aware that he is nothing like as complex and interesting as the great Dane, and that his destiny will never have anything like such tragic grandeur. Hamlet was born to kill a king and set right a rotten state; Ivanov’s biggest problem is how to pay the interest on a loan. Most of our lives and careers end in failure, Chekhov seems to be saying, but we should never indulge in the absurdity of self-absorbed melancholy and should always remember the healthy sanity of laughter.

In unsettling contrast, though, Gina McKee is heartrending as Anna Petrovna, pale, dignified and cracked-voiced, a tragic, consumptive wife with her idle, useless husband cheating on her even in her last days. She is attended by the upright, priggish and perpetually indignant Dr Lvov, an “honest man”, as he tirelessly reminds everybody, with no understanding of or sympathy for the human condition. Chekhov didn’t do heroes and villains, but of all his characters, Lvov comes closest to being a villain. Played by Tom Hiddleston, he is cold and angular, his eyes glimmering with puritan fanaticism behind his little round specs, and his goatee beard making you think of a ferocious commissar of the people, some proto-Trotsky whose facile condemnations of human weakness are both comical and chilling.

With its long, pointless, pompous provincial conversations, and its characters driven to distraction by the dullness of country life, the comedy here is rarely Chekhov’s finest, and, especially in the early stages, sometimes downright feeble. The director, Michael Grandage, seems to have decided to take it all at a mad gallop, as if it’s a West End farce. To this end, there is some pretty manic acting from the secondary characters, favouring energy rather than subtlety, a lot of shouting and rushing about, much hearty stage laughter and even some jovial thigh-slapping. Andrea Riseborough, too, is a bit obviously girlish and twirly as the young daughter.

In Act III, though, there is a key change to minor, as Branagh tears into himself in an electrifying soliloquy, “not hoping for anything, not sorry for anything”, and “dreading every new day”. This penultimate act ends on a superb cliffhanger. Christopher Oram’s set here is also gorgeous. Ivanov’s down-at-heel estate office looks like a garden shed, with guns and rods, stuffed ferrets and dead rabbits.

Tom Stoppard’s version of the play doesn’t sound especially distinguished - maybe he rattled it off in 10 days, too, in keeping with the spirit of the original. There are striking modernisms - “pissed off”, “bitching”, “silly yid”, “chronic gloom merchant” - which might be less abrasive if they did not keep rubbing up against a much more antiquated diction, with talk of coachmen and tail coats and Ivanov lamenting, at one point, his “woeful countenance of discontent and self-disgust”. It all seems rather careless. On the plus side, the old pro certainly does his best with the comedy, and Chekhov’s extraordinary humanity shines throughout, even at the same time as he is inviting us, persuading us, to laugh at the petty troubles and sorrows of these ludicrous people who are just like us.

There are other nonaesthetic but sound reasons to applaud this production. A Chekhov classic on a West End stage, competing with those innumerable musicals, is not to be scorned. The rest of the Donmar’s year at Wyndham’s will give us Yukio Mishima’s Madame De Sade, as well as Twelfth Night and Hamlet. Should the season prove a success - and sales are already good - then reports of the death of intelligent theatre in the West End will have been greatly exaggerated.

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