It’s one thing to do justice to a masterpiece. It’s quite another to take a rarely performed, rickety piece — in this case, Chekhov’s first full-length play, “Ivanov” — and reveal it to be a pulsating theatrical rollercoaster. But that’s precisely what helmer Michael Grandage, translator Tom Stoppard and a dynamite cast led by Kenneth Branagh have done in this Donmar Warehouse West End production.
Ira Gershwin once wrote the lyric: “I’ve found more clouds of gray/Than any Russian play could guarantee,” but the most striking thing about this staging is the banishment of traditional gray melancholia. In its place is a tonal range ricocheting between extremes of emotional black and white with thrilling confidence. That’s all the more extraordinary given that productions of this play tend to take their lead from a central character of uncommon doom and gloom.
Stoppard’s trenchant, often laugh-aloud funny translation never uses the word, but, more than a decade ahead of Freud’s first publication, Nikolai Ivanov (Branagh) is clinically depressed.
Just the wrong side of 40, Ivanov’s been married for five years to Anna Petrovna (touchingly assured Gina McKee), a Jewish woman who gave up her religion and, crucially, her fortune to marry him. But although she’s now suffering from tuberculosis, he believes he can no longer love her.
Desperate for escape, not least from himself, Ivanov spends evenings at the home of his old friend Lebedev (a winning performance of shambling, ham-strung geniality from Kevin R. McNally). But Lebedev is not the attraction, it’s his friend’s 19-year-old daughter Sasha (Andrea Riseborough, burning almost scarily with idealism), who so urgently believes in him she will go to any lengths to prove her love.
Branagh is quietly riveting as a man torn apart by guilt. His heavy frame seems weighed down by Ivanov’s mounting debt, his failure to cope with the demands of his estate, and what to him feels like a tidal wave of demands by self-absorbed friends and hangers-on.
Contradiction is the key to this masterly performance. Branagh illuminates Ivanov’s depression not with expected slow, yearning introspection, but with energy bordering on fury. Not only does this make everything unusually dynamic, it keeps audiences racing to keep up with his train of thought.
That, in turn, lends upsetting weight to his climactic moment of horrified self-revelation. Time seems to stop at the point where, faced with his oldest friend’s act of selfless generosity, he literally crumples before our eyes, teetering helplessly into an unreachable state beyond despair.
Branagh’s charged-up rhythm and range is matched by the entire ensemble who, armed with both Chekhov and Stoppard’s gifts for absurdity, relish every moment of stage time.
The production’s merciful refusal to deal in Chekhovian cliche is embodied in its design. There’s not a silver birch to be seen on Christopher Oram’s spare and eloquent set of parched earth with a hint of wrecked fence against an abstracted sky. Paule Constable jettisons traditional wintry desolation in favor of golden-hour sunlight shimmering with a heat matched by lush strings in Adam Cork’s hope-filled score.
That’s contrasted by the dimly strangled politesse of the largely candle-lit interior for the stuffy home of snobby Zinaida (comically peevish Sylvestra le Touzel). It’s here Grandage’s control really comes to the fore. Even with 14 characters on stage, he creates a group portrait of boredom paradoxically filled with individual comic life. Thus even the tiny role of Kosykh, a bridge-playing bore, is spot lit via James Tucker’s perfectly judged performance.
That degree of vivid, lived-in detail allows more major characters, like Malcolm Sinclair’s roaring, down-on-his-luck Count Shabelsky, to have exuberant, three-dimensional life.
In the glorious drinking scene — how many other plays bring down the house with a squabble over the virtues of herring vs. pickled cucumber? — Sinclair’s Shabelsky is hilarious. Like everyone in the play, he’s engulfed by boredom. Despite Chekhov’s escalating tragedy, rarely has boredom been so entertaining.
This revelatory show’s position as the first of the Donmar’s four-play, cut-price West End season — its top price is around £20 ($36) less than most of its rivals — means it cannot extend. But future life in the U.S. in a year’s time must be on the cards.