“Your eyes are so full of suffering,” a character says of penniless Russian landowner Nikolai Ivanov, and the same could be said of the part’s latest interpreter, Ralph Fiennes. From his emergence in the British subsidized theater a decade ago to his more recent screen renown, Fiennes has become England’s leading avatar of angst, possessed of eyes that seem to bear silent witness to unspeakable pain. It will come as little surprise, then, to hear that he’s near-ideal casting for this early Chekhov play, at the Almeida Theater for a six-week run in a superlative new version by David Hare.
But unlike this same theater’s “Hamlet” with Fiennes two seasons ago, “Ivanov” is no one-man show. Indeed, it’s a tribute of sorts to director Jonathan Kent and a dazzling supporting cast (particularly the men) that Ivanov sometimes seems like the inactive host of his own play, glimpsed brooding in doorways while his boisterous compatriots seize center-stage. But just when our focus seems drawn for good to Oliver Ford Davies’ nihilist Shabyelski (Ivanov’s uncle) or to Bill Paterson as a self-proclaimed “bulbous old nose” with a kind heart and appetite for drink, Fiennes reappears to assert the play’s troubling theme: a life of candor, no less than cruelty, can slowly kill.
Ivanov’s honesty doubles as his hangman’s noose, though he is hardly the only one to suffer its effect. He once loved the tubercular Anna Petrovna (Harriet Walter, with a drawn face and a disconcertingly affected Jewish accent), but he no longer does and is unashamed about making that fact clear. A Jew who cut off ties to her family and her money to marry Ivanov, Anna offers herself up as therapist and confidante only to be rebuffed later in as shocking an encounter as exists in Chekhov. (Audiences unfamiliar with the play may be disturbed by its unflinching depiction of anti-Semitism.)
Ivanov sets his romantic sights on Sasha (Justine Waddell), but lacks the will to give himself unconditionally to another. Ever resistant to rebirth, Ivanov, unlike Hamlet, finds no energy in life’s games. “There’s no need for a duel,” he declares, his struggle not with outside corruption but his own corroding spirit.
Guns, of course, figure prominently in Chekhov, and the opening scene here suggests this play will follow suit, as Ivanov’s steward approaches him playfully with a gun. But it is Chekhov’s point, emphasized in Hare’s bruisingly contemporary adaptation (saying “ootsy-tootsy,” Shabyelski sounds like he stepped out of a play by Suzan-Lori Parks), that no one could wound Ivanov as deeply as he does himself. Chekhov’s dramatic arc here is the playing out of Ivanov’s ongoing internal argument.
More even than as Hamlet, Fiennes communicates a sense of staring into the abyss while enlarging upon the physical plasticity that he’s gained from film work.
If “Ivanov” were a protracted wallow in despair, it would be pretty tough to take, and moments do exist where one wonders how its title character ever possessed the charisma attributed to him. (With Fiennes in the part, that question is muted.) But keeping an eye on the comedy Chekhov always insisted upon, director Kent lifts a potentially morose dramatic reclamation into one only slightly less boisterous (and, at times, over the top) than his 1996 “Tartuffe.”
Although Rosemary McHale tips into caricature as Sasha’s vulgarian of a mother (she’s an incipient version of Natasha in “Three Sisters”), Ian McDiarmid elevates the minor role of the card-playing Kosykh into the comic embodiment of a solipsism only slightly less damaging than Ivanov’s own. When the characters spill onto Tobias Hoheisel’s turntable set, the stageful of obsessives is rivaled, in this author’s output, perhaps only by “The Cherry Orchard.” This is a community devoted to satisfying their every want, while Ivanov’s tragedy is to take no sensual satisfaction from life. Fiennes’ achievement lies in portraying a man who is not so quietly closing down.
The star is more than equaled by Ford Davies, Hare’s inimitable Lionel Espy in “Racing Demon,” as Ivanov’s partner in self-disgust, the aging widower Shabyelski who won’t marry the young heiress (Diane Bull) prescribed to him. Hands and hair flapping, he makes his entrance railing about doctors and lawyers only (as is the way of this play) to finish by railing against himself. It’s a measure of this astonishing actor that he strikes most directly at the piercing truth of the play: that people who hate others despise most of all themselves.