After enjoying Jonathan Kent's production of THE SEAGULL I wanted to see how he approached Chekhov's earlier drama IVANOV. especially as he was using the David Hare translation that was the basis of his starry production at the Almeida nearly 20 years ago where Ralph Fiennes was an impassioned anti-hero.
Geoffrey Streatfeild, who had been a very urbane Trigorin in THE SEAGULL, here played the tormented lead character, a hard part to play as nothing makes him happy - and by extension, potentially the audience too. Since Ralph Fiennes I have also seen Kenneth Branagh play the role, well... half of it.
It was in 2008, in the balcony of the Wyndhams Theatre, during Michael Grandage's production when I started to feel strange... was I going to faint, be sick, both? More importantly, was I going to do it sitting dead centre in a long row? I could not have negotiated my way along the narrow leg room in the dark, half way through the first act. So I sat it out, staring at the chandelier which was on eye-level, daring not to look down at the stage in case I toppled forward with the vertigo I was experiencing. God it seemed to last forever, all the time enduring Branagh's whiny performance. The interval came and I left...
Ivanov is on the edge of the financial abyss; his acres of farmland are failing thanks to the progressive methods he championed when younger - a fact that his unctuous land manager never fails to mention - and his creditors are getting louder. More troubling, he has fallen out of love with his Jewish wife Anna who is also succumbing to consumption. Ivanov had expected to inherit her family's fortune but her father disinherited her when she not only married a gentile but also changed her name. The town's thinly-veiled anti-Semitism is beginning to infect Ivanov too. Anna's strait-laced young doctor Lvov hates Ivanov for his negligence and also delights in telling him.
There is one last chance for financial escape; Sasha, the daughter of his sympathetic friend Pavel Lebedev and his hard-hearted but wealthy wife Zinaida. Every night Ivanov goes to their house to be belittled and patronized by their boorish friends but also is succeeding in wearing Zinaida down. Sasha is bored living with her parents and is eager to be married to Ivanov but what of Anna?
Oddly I remember Kent's Almeida production as more light-hearted despite the moments of anguish for Ivanov and Anna but here the sombre tone is more prevalent. The overall gloom is signalled by Streatfeild's Ivanov, rarely varying the pitch of his performance even when romancing Olivia Vinall's Sasha. For once I liked Vinall's performance, her usual overly-declamatory style matched the character's nervy desperation to be married to her beloved older man.
Kent certainly showed the division between the two households: the depressive air at Ivanov's house and the boorish clamour of the Lebedev parties - at the former Des McAleer was delightfully awful as the overseer Borkin, James McArdle impressed as Doctor Lvov, whose high-minded self-righteousness takes no prisoners, and Nina Sosanya was a gentle Anna Petrovna, blazing into an anger that consumes her.
The excruciating Lebedev household featured fine performances from Brian Pettifer as the dull gambler Kosykh, Beverley Klein as the ghastly widow Avdotya, Debra Gillet's steel-hearted Zinaida and Emma Amos as the predatory widow Marfusha although I kept looking through her down the years to see the late and very great Diane Bull who played the role at the Almeida, an indelible stage image was Bull picking her nose with boredom then trying to get rid of the evidence on her black dress when spoken to.
There was also fine performances from Peter Egan as Ivanov's emotional uncle Shabyelski who agrees to marry widow Marfusha for her money - echoes of Ivanov and Sasha - but has the good sense to back out at the end, something the ever-vacillating Ivanov cannot do. Possibly the performance of the evening however was Jonathan Coy as Lebedev, saddled with a penny-pinching wife but unable to get angry at his friend Ivanov; the scene where he offers a dejected Ivanov money to pay some debts was beautifully played: Lebedev's embarrassment at offering it meeting Ivanov's rigid mortification at being offered it.
Tom Pye's set seemed to have more seamless transitions than when we saw THE SEAGULL so were all the more effective as were Emma Ryott's lived-in costumes; Mark Henderson's lighting illuminated the stage wonderfully, visually linking to the characters' inner turmoil.
Rufus Norris is to be applauded for giving the Chichester Theatre's season of early Chekhov plays a wider audience and a home in the Olivier Theatre.