By Anton Chekov, English version by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Michael Grandage
Donmar in the West End
Wednesday 29th October 2008
Wow. This was an amazing production of this play, the sort of production that makes you wonder why it isn’t done more often. The performances were all excellent, and the set design, costumes, etc made it all the more enjoyable. As far as we could see, the audience were definitely a more theatrical crowd than usual, including Joseph Millson and Niamh Cusack, but even so the coughing was a problem. Ah well.
The opening was visually striking, with Kenneth Branagh standing on his own, pacing about a sort of courtyard outside his house, looking miserable and depressed. He’s startled by the firing of a gun; Lorcan Cranitch as Borkin decides to cheer him up. Borkin is one of those Energiser Bunny types; he’s always got some scheme on the go, and it’s almost impossible to shut him up. Gradually we meet the people closest to Ivanov – his wife Anna Petrovna (Gina McKee), his uncle Shabelsky (Malcolm Sinclair) who happens to be a count, but doesn’t have any money to go with the title, and Lvov (Tom Hiddleston – Posthumus/Cloten in Cheek by Jowl’s Cymbeline), the doctor who’s attending Anna Petrovna and has diagnosed her condition as tuberculosis. Lvov is priggish and self-righteous, and very angry with Ivanov, believing him to be the main cause of his wife’s illness. Anna Petrovna is the loyal, understanding type, but even she’s being worn down by Ivanov’s apparently inexplicable behaviour. Shabelsky just wants to enjoy himself, without having to marry any of the rich widows that this area seems to have in abundance.
The second act shows us the other household that the play is concerned with. Zinaida (Sylvestra Le Touzel), her husband Lebedev (Kevin R McNally) and their daughter Sasha (Andrea Riseborough) seem to be the centre of attention. It’s Sasha’s birthday, and just about everyone has come to pay their respects. Zanaida wishes they would come to pay her what they owe her. She’s been left very rich (her husband has practically nothing), and she lives on the proceeds of moneylending. Not that she spends a kopeck more than she has to, mind you. When the guests go outside to watch some fireworks (courtesy of Borkin), she goes around the room snuffing out the candles. Ivanov owes her several thousand roubles and the interest is due, but he has nothing to pay her with, hence his trip over to see her to ask for more time. Lebedev is one of those poor husbands who finds himself without authority in his own home, which makes for some very entertaining moments. The “guests”, or hangers-on, are supplemented by another rich widow, Babakina (Lucy Briers), and Ivanov and Shabelsky who arrive with Borkin.
As the birthday party moves outside for the fireworks, various private conversations can go on inside. Borkin jokingly persuades Shabelsky to propose to Babakina, and then Sasha declares her love for Ivanov, which has to be one of the silliest things any Chekov heroine has done. Presumably she believes she can make his life wonderful again. Anyway, he’s about to accept her offer and starting to believe he can be happy again when Anna Petrovna arrives and sees them kissing. She faints. Interval.
The third act is set in Ivanov’s “office” on his estate. It’s a shambles, with painting equipment, a desk, lots of papers, and three men sitting drinking themselves silly. No Ivanov to be seen. Shabelsky, Borkin and Lebedev are chatting and drinking, and waiting for Ivanov. Lvov also turns up, and when Ivanov arrives, just about everyone is clamouring for his attention. He’s in a temper about Shabelsky’s drinking in the office (and the pickled cucumbers, etc), but listens to Lebedev first. Lebedev wants to lend Ivanov enough money to pay the interest he owes to Zinaida, but Ivanov refuses. Lvov then has his turn, and comes out with some ludicrous stuff. He’s so far gone in his arrogance that he can’t see much of what’s happening other than his own prejudices. He believes Ivanov wants his wife to die so he can marry Sasha and get her dowry. Neither man can stand the other, but my sympathies were (just) with Ivanov, as the doctor is almost freakish in his intolerance.
He leaves when he sees Sasha turn up, and then she and Ivanov have their little heart to heart. When Anna Petrovna does arrive, Sasha has gone, but that doesn’t stop them having a row. She’s finally realised that he doesn’t love her anymore (we could have told her that an hour ago), and he lashes out in return, not only calling her a Yid (she was Jewish but converted when she married him), but tells her outright that she’s a dead woman. That gets to her, and although he regrets it, there’s nothing more to be said. I found it wasn’t as shocking as some other moments I’ve seen, such as Freddie borrowing a shilling for the gas meter in The Deep Blue Sea, but it was climactic.
The final act is some time later, after Anna Petrovna has died, and Ivanov and Sasha are about to be married. It’s set in the Lebedev’s sitting room again, only this time the furniture has been cleared out, and there are some decorations (presumably the cheapest). There are various conversations that we get to see. Sasha is having some doubts, but her father talks to her and she’s resolved again. Shabelsky turns up, and before you know it, there are two, then three people having a good cry in the room, with only Lebedev unmoved. I loved it when Zanaida turns up crying as well. I could see that she was in tears at the thought of losing the money Ivanov owed her, as well as having to pay over more roubles for the dowry, rather than any concern for her daughter or emotional upset because there’s to be a wedding.
Ivanov arrives and does his best to persuade Sasha to give him up. She refuses, and after some more confrontations, including another interruption from the doctor, Ivanov takes his courage, and his revolver, into the next room and shoots himself.
Simply telling the story doesn’t begin to get across the impact of this production. With such strong performances, all the characters came to life, and the dialogue, which was modern yet seemed appropriate for the time, sparkled with wit. The character types that Chekov used throughout his career were all here, and I was struck by the way all the people, especially Ivanov, were suffering because of the community they lived in rather than the events of their lives or their personalities. It’s clear Chekov isn’t making any judgements of his characters, which is just as well given the behaviour of some of them. It was a tremendous performance, and possibly the best we’ll see of this play.
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me