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.

Ivanov - Kenneth Branagh Lebedev - Kevin R. McNally Anna Petrovna - Gina McKee Shabelsky - Malcolm Sinclair Borkin - Lorcan Cranitch Lvov - Tom Hiddleston Sasha - Andrea Riseborough Babakina - Lucy Briers Zinaida - Sylvestra Le Touzel Kosykh - James Tucker Avdotya - Linda Broughton

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.


Wyndham's Theater, London; 750 seats; £32.50 $59 top

Production: A Donmar West End presentation of a play in two acts by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Michael Grandage.

Crew: Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting Paule Constable; original music and sound, Adam Cork; production stage manager, Greg Shimmin. Opened, reviewed Sept. 17, 2008. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

With: Ivanov - Kenneth Branagh Lebedev - Kevin R. McNally Anna Petrovna - Gina McKee Shabelsky - Malcolm Sinclair Borkin - Lorcan Cranitch Lvov - Tom Hiddleston Sasha - Andrea Riseborough Babakina - Lucy Briers Zinaida - Sylvestra Le Touzel Kosykh - James Tucker Avdotya - Linda BroughtonWith: John Atterbury, Jonathan Battersby, Emma Beattie, Ian Drysdale, Giovanna Falcone, James Howard, Malcolm Ridley.

More Film

  • Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as

    Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as CEO of VFX Firm Foundry

    Jody Madden has been upped to CEO at U.K.-based VFX outfit Foundry. She steps up having been chief product officer and replaces Craig Rodgerson, who joined the company in late 2017. Foundry was bought by U.S. tech firm Roper Technologies earlier this year in a £410 million ($509 million) deal. The London-based business provides software [...]

  • The Lion King

    ‘The Lion King’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Walt Disney Pictures claims the top spot in spending with “The Lion King.” Ads placed for the remake had an estimated media value of $5.64 million through Sunday for 1,290 national ad airings on [...]

  • Beyonce poses for photographers upon arrival

    Beyoncé Releases Music Video for 'Spirit,' Her 'Lion King' Soundtrack Contribution

    Beyoncé fans are stampeding across the web veldt to get a look at her just-released music video for “Spirit,” the original song she co-wrote and sang for the “Lion King” soundtrack. The track is also included on the companion album she executive-produced and will release Friday, “The Gift.” Clips from the computer-animated film are interspersed [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez Takes Down Wall Street Crooks in New Trailer for 'Hustlers'

    According to Jennifer Lopez, basic pole dancing movements all revolve around a few foot positions. But as she tells her stripper student Constance Wu, it’s not just about the dancing. In the new trailer for “Hustlers,” Lopez and Wu swindle a number of high profile Wall Street clients in an effort to bring their white [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Writers Guild Leaders Warn Members About Contact With Fired Agents

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America are warning members about being contacted by their former agents — asserting that such efforts are an attempt to undermine the WGA and its members. The missive, sent Tuesday from the WGA negotiating committee, came with the guild in a bitter three-month standoff with talent agents that appears [...]

  • Apollo 11

    Film News Roundup: 'Apollo 11' Re-Release Set for Moon Landing Anniversary

    In today’s film news roundup, Neon is re-releasing “Apollo 11”; “Sesame Street” gets moved; “Supersize Me 2” is set for Sept. 13; Will Ropp gets a “Silk Road” deal; and Apple makes a movie deal. RE-LAUNCH Neon will re-release Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary “Apollo 11” in theaters on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the [...]

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy' Moves to Awards Season Slot

    Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy” has been shifted forward three weeks from Jan. 17 to Dec. 25 for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. “Just Mercy” is based on the case of Walter McMillan, an African-American death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 1993 after being convicted five years earlier for a 1986 murder in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content