Quartermaine’s Terms – March 2013

Experience: 8/10

By Simon Gray

Directed by Richard Eyre

Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre

Date: Saturday 16th March 2013

Henry David Thoreau wrote that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, a quote which I have always remembered but never understood until today. Simon Gray’s work exemplifies this concept, particularly in this play where the characters present bright and cheerful facades to cover the truth of their inner despair. We get to see both the inner and outer aspects of their lives during a performance, and thankfully there’s enough humour to lighten the load.

The set was as usual for this play, with an old leather armchair front left for Quartermaine himself, other seats across the front, a table and chairs behind, lockers on the right and a small kitchen area back right. Other staff room paraphernalia – books, filing cabinet, etc. – were dotted around, with entrances at the back and on the right. The style and costumes were all appropriate for the early 1960s.

The performances were all excellent, and there was plenty of laughter from the audience. Rowan Atkinson played the central character really well, and a lot of the humour was down to his performance. His character came across as more cartoonish than the others, and this portrayal brought out less of the sadness in Quartermaine’s life that I experienced in Nathaniel Parker’s previous interpretation (June 2008), but it still worked very well, and with such a strong cast the production as a whole was excellent. Conleth Hill was marvellous as the erudite older teacher who eventually takes over the school, while Will Keen wrung every last drop of social embarrassment out of the accident prone but hard-working Derek Meadle. Malcolm Sinclair was suitably stroppy and forgetful as the headmaster, and the rest of the cast were equally as good. Well worth the visit, although I wouldn’t care to spend much time with any of these people in real life.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – July 2011

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Josie Rourke

Venue: Wyndhams Theatre

Date: Monday 11th July 2011

I was a bit disappointed with tonight’s experience, not so much due to the production as the audience. With so many David and Catherine fans, the laughter came all too easily, and while some of it was very well deserved, there were times when it swamped the dialogue, times when it was strangely absent, and times when it came for no apparent reason at all. This was not your regular Shakespeare audience, and while I’m glad this run has been so successful, and hope that it will turn one or two youngsters on to Shakespeare’s work, I found that the uncritical adulation spoiled my enjoyment a bit.

The set was excellent, with four big pillars on a revolve surrounded by slatted panels and doorways suggesting the warm Mediterranean location perfectly. The costumes were also excellent – modern dress, with military costumes and formal suits rubbing shoulders with scruffy dungarees and T-shirts. Benedict’s costume for the masked ball looked like a cross between Lily Savage and Olivia Newton John in the final scene of Grease, Hero’s wedding dress echoed Diana’s, and Dogberry wore military fatigues with the word ‘officer’ across his chest.

The parts that didn’t work so well for me included the second part of the eavesdropping scene and some of the ruined wedding scene. The eavesdropping scene was staged with a couple of decorators bringing their trolley on stage and touching up the paintwork on a door and then one of the pillars. This allowed Benedict to get white paint on one hand, which then ended up on his face, clothes, etc. All this was very funny, but the trouble is there’s another round of eavesdropping to go, and Beatrice not only has to do something different, it really has to top Benedict’s efforts or the energy will flag. Tonight, Beatrice’s comic business involved covering herself with the painters’ tarpaulin, then groping her way towards the back of the stage where she could be attached to a hook and lifted up. All well and good, and very funny to start with, but then the laughter just drowned out the dialogue and I switched off very quickly. I’ve seen this done better.

The wedding scene started very well, with a nice change of pace into the darker phase of the play. Benedict’s reactions were particularly good here, making it clear that even this joker recognises the enormity of the Prince and Duke’s accusation. Then when Beatrice and Benedict are left alone, the humour of their mutual admissions of love were funny, but the excessive audience reactions jarred with the previous mood, and when Beatrice tells Benedict that she wants him to kill Claudio, this was also greeted with laughter, which is so wrong and certainly not how it was played. Even so, I was very moved by this scene, not as far as needing a hanky, but my eyes were definitely wet. This sort of insensitive response detracts from the performance for me, although not completely, thank goodness.

Other negatives in the staging included the strange bit after Claudio has read the poem over Hero’s grave. He has a portable CD player and some booze with him for his all-night vigil, and by dint of playing loud music, swigging the booze and throwing himself around a lot, I deduced we were to understand that he was truly sorry for what he’d done. In case we hadn’t taken the hint, he even took out a gun, and was about to shoot himself when Hero walked in, dressed in black. He’s so amazed by her appearance that he collapses on the floor, where the Prince finds him the next morning. Neither Steve nor I could figure this one out. Was it Hero herself stopping him, in which case how did she get there at just the right moment, or was it a vision he was having, in which case why was she in a completely different outfit? I’m all for ambiguity, but this was just vague.

I was also suspicious of the semi-corpsing when Beatrice came to call Benedict in to dinner. We’ve seen this sort of rehearsed improv before, and it didn’t ring completely true for me, while Steve was out and sure it was a fake. I noticed tonight that Catherine Tate reappeared in the wings briefly after her final departure – no idea why.

The other main problem I had with the performance was Catherine Tate’s weak delivery. She started off well, but in any prolonged speech she tended to lose energy and volume. This wouldn’t have been a problem in a more average production, but with such high-powered performers around her it was very noticeable. I also found Don John and Borachio hard to follow, Don John because of his rather jerky delivery, and Borachio because I couldn’t tune in to the accent he was using. Choosing to replace Leonato’s brother with his wife was an interesting move – trying to balance up the sexes perhaps? – but her part was seriously underwritten as a result, with nothing to say in the wedding scene, and no threat to fight the Prince either. Her delivery was even weaker than Catherine Tate’s, so perhaps it was a blessing she had so few lines.

So what did I enjoy about the play? Well, the other performances were excellent, and even Dogberry came out funnier than usual. John Ramm still struggled with that first scene – when no-one is pointing out the errors it can fall a little flat – but his later appearances went down well, especially his final leave-taking of Leonato. He had a thing with his sidekick, Verges, where they put their fists together and said ‘boom’. He tried to go through the motions of this with Leonato as well, but realised it wasn’t going to be reciprocated, or appreciated. His insistence on being ‘written down an ass’ went down very well with this crowd, which made up for them missing some of the other gems.

David Tennant was, as expected, excellent, with great comic timing and clear delivery of the lines. I noticed he was more static than in his RSC roles, but that’s probably the proscenium arch for you. He did have to mug it up a bit for this audience, but he does that so well, who cares? Both Adam James as the Prince and Tom Bateman as Claudio were very good, and I was impressed with what I could hear of Sarah Macrae as Hero – her part suffered the worst from the excessive laughter. I enjoyed Jonathan Coy’s excellent Leonato, and although I couldn’t always make out Don John’s dialogue, I appreciated Elliot Levey’s portrayal of the part. It reminded me of Richard Nixon, all stiff and formal, and with inappropriate attempts to be one of the boys, including offering a cigarette to the young lad.

The pre-wedding stag and hen nights were a very good piece of staging, and allowed ‘Hero’s’ infidelity to be staged as a shag against the wall in a dark space with Margaret wearing Hero’s bridal veil. It also allowed Don John to craftily get both his brother and Claudio well drunk before showing them the ‘proof’.

When the Prince proposed to Beatrice, he was in earnest, and her embarrassment when she realises this was evident. He’s clearly hurt by her rejection, and Leonato’s request for her to ‘look to those things I told you of’ is solely an excuse to get her out of there, for which she’s very grateful.

The young boy was excellent, too – don’t know which one it was tonight, their pictures in the program are too similar. He brought the book back just at the wrong time, and finally Benedict threw it off the stage to get rid of it and him. Later, when Benedict is attempting to compose a love-song to Beatrice using an electronic keyboard, he pushes a button which starts the machine playing some music, and can’t get it to stop. Needless to say, when the young lad walks across the back of the stage, he sees that Benedict’s in trouble, and with the resigned air of the technically savvy youth, walks over, pushes the right button, and leaves. Beautifully done. Benedict then starts checking out some of the other options, before giving up entirely. I think this scene was put before his request to Margaret to fetch Beatrice, but I can’t be sure.

During the wedding scene, the reactions from Don John and Margaret were easy to miss, but well worth catching. Don John was smirking a bit when Hero was accused, while Margaret looked shocked, then worried, then guilty, and her mother hustled her out of the church quickly at the end.

Overall, it was a lively and fairly straightforward interpretation of the play, with lots of humour and affection between the characters, and despite the audience reactions, I enjoyed it very much.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Twelfth Night – March 2009

9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Grandage

Donmar in the West End

Venue: Wyndham’s Theatre

Date: Saturday 7th March 2009

Well, this was quite an amazing experience from the word go. A couple of fatalities in the Norbury area a couple of weeks ago kept us from seeing this production as originally booked. The only available alternative performance was the last Saturday matinee, and the only seats for two were in Box 1. I’d never been in a box before – neither had Steve – but despite the restricted view we decided it was worth it to be able to see this production. Now, sitting here, I can safely say these are the best restricted view seats I’ve ever sat in. The box is the size of a (very) small bedsit, the actors will be within spitting distance (not that I plan on doing any such thing) and if I learn forward (very carefully) I can see almost every part of the stage, including some parts few other eyes can reach. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself and the performance hasn’t even started yet!

The set had scumbled wooden louvered doors floor to ceiling in autumnal colours, all along the back and round the side, with broad wooden floorboards, a bit rough and nibbled at the ends, covering the stage. These represented the seashore and large country house aspects of the play very well. During the play the doors at the back rose up and we could see the stage behind. Another set of doors were lowered down, in a concave arch, and for some scenes they were removed altogether. For furniture, there was just a chaise brought on and off and a windbreak used in the letter discovery scene, but otherwise the stage was bare and characters often sat on the floor. I realised after a while that the floor was also curved, dipping down from the sides towards the centre. From our angle, I had no idea of the rake.

The costumes were of uncertain period – Steve reckoned Edwardian, similar to Chichester’s production last year, while I thought they might be a little later. Either way, they were more up-to-date than Elizabethan. Feste wore a tattered patchwork coat over scruffy top and trousers, while Orsino wore very little until the latter scenes – pyjama bottoms and a robe, which hung open most of the time revealing a well honed torso, with good muscle definition and a nice covering of hair……. Sorry, where was I? Both Viola and Sebastian wore military-style outfits with short jackets, striped trousers and a sash at the waist. At the start Viola wore a tattered dress, fitted to the waist then full to the floor with a lacy overskirt; the sea-green colour made her look like a mermaid. Olivia started out in a black dress likewise fitting on top and spreading below, which also had a small bustle. Once smitten, she changed into a slash neck striped top, casual cream trousers and cream and tan shoes – very smart. Maria was in a black number with spots, the sailors were dressed as such, Sebastian wore a knitted one-piece swimsuit for his main scene with Antonio, Malvolio was in sombre black until adopting a natty yachting outfit with shorts and cross-gartered yellow stockings and the remaining men’s outfits were light-coloured suits. Actually, I reckon Steve’s right about the Edwardian period now I’ve listed it all.

This production managed to start with both a reference to the shipwreck and the regular opening line. At first there was the sound of thunder, then shortly afterwards Orsino came through the doors and started the opening speech. This Orsino looked pretty rough. He was obviously neglecting himself due to being in the pangs of love, and he was really determined to get Olivia to marry him.  The next scene had the sea captain carrying Viola on to the stage (how they must pray for a light actress) and he was already taking the male clothes out of the bag while she was finding out where she was and who lived there. I didn’t find the emotional aspects of her situation coming across so much this time, and Victoria Hamilton, although excellent with her facial expressions, did lack some of the vocal clarity of the rest of the cast. Being so much to one side I lost some of her dialogue when she was facing away from us, though the rest of the cast were fine.

Olivia may have looked to be in strict mourning, but her sense of humour soon peeked through the clouds when Feste got to work. She was obviously fond of him and not too unkind when she reproved Malvolio either. A kind person with a good sense of humour, but absolutely determined not to marry Orsino (relishing her freedom  now she’s her own woman, perhaps, grief or no grief) and equally determined that the household routine was not to be disturbed. (A smart move – look what happens in Uncle Vanya.) Malvolio was suitably stern, and there may have been some looks passed between him and Feste, but on the whole his antics were restricted to the letter scene and the yellow stockings scene.

When Cesario arrived and asks which of the two women present was the mistress of the house, only Olivia had her veil on and was sitting on the chaise longue. Maria was standing up behind her, so Viola’s question showed more cheekiness than usual, as often Olivia gets Maria to veil herself as well. Their banter put Maria out as well, and the dispute with Olivia about the wooing got quite sparky. However, Viola’s passion for Orsino, expressed in her words to Olivia, noticeably thawed the ice, and Olivia is quick to check out the youth’s credentials (not the physical ones).

Sebastian and Antonio made their first appearance, and although there was no obvious signs of the homosexuality that dogs many a production, it was clear that Antonio was smitten. Sebastian was as straightforward as his sister, and with their matching costumes, he was easy to identify. Incidentally, Olivia was still sitting on the chaise during this scene,the lights lowered on that part of the stage, and didn’t leave till this scene was over. I have no idea why.

Viola’s deductions from the ring that Malvolio ‘returns’ to her were nicely done. She figured out the message and was more appalled than amused by it, clearly feeling that there would be trouble ahead until Time sorts things out (she’s not wrong).

Sir Toby and Sir Andrew were an excellent pairing. We’d already seen them drunk in the morning, now we got to see them even drunker at night. Sir Toby was a rogue, but it seemsedbe less out of malice than out of the bottle. He might make a decent husband to Maria, and they certainly match each other in practical jokes. I was very aware this time that Sir Toby’s ploy to get Sir Andrew to challenge Cesario to a duel was the complementary trick to Maria’s letter – wooing by japes, as it were. Sir Andrew, played by Guy Henry, was suitably foppish without being ridiculously over the top. His dancing was very funny, and his reaction of surprise and delight when he finally realised what Maria intended with the letter was excellent.

Sir Toby was much smarter than Sir Andrew, and realised almost as soon as Maria mentioned the idea what she was planning. She clearly thought of the idea as she was talking, and worked it out in front of them. Malvolio has certainly been unpleasant to all of them, although I felt this time, as I often do, that late night carousing when others are trying to sleep is not the most considerate way to treat one’s fellow human beings. (I once shared a flat with four students when I was a working woman, so I say this with feeling and some experience of the subject.) Anyway, playing this joke on Malvolio didn’t seem so unkind as it sometimes does; the man needed to be taken down a peg or two, although how it turned out is another matter.

As to the singing, I must mention that Zubin Varla was very good with all of Feste’s songs. Not the strongest voice, perhaps, but smooth, light and very pleasant. The tunes used gave a sense of Elizabethan style (at least they did to me) and they also included an attempt at the final verse of the Twelve Days Of Christmas, with the trio failing miserably to remember the words until the five gold rings part, and then breaking out into raucous song.

The relationship between Orsino and Cesario/Viola became clearer with the next scene as they listened to Feste’s song, Come Away Death. He wasn’t fancying him/her as in some other productions, but he was very fond of him/her and casually laid his head on his/her leg while the music played. She was a bundle of nerves, desperate to be this close to him as a woman but terrified of revealing herself. She still managed to come up with some good reasoning about women’s faithfulness and ability to love.

Now for the wonderful letter scene. I am coming to the conclusion that this scene is so well written that it would be hard not to have the audience in stitches, but I don’t want to imply that the actors have an easy time of it, nor that they aren’t doing a fantastic job. This lot did an excellent job, starting with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew’s arrival. Sir Toby was carrying a bag with some bottles(?) while Sir Andrew had a folded up windbreak over his shoulder. Casting Ron Cook as Sir Toby had one practical advantage here, as Guy Henry could swing the windbreak round and have it pass over Sir Toby’s head nicely, much to our amusement. They set it up in the part of the stage we couldn’t see so well – back right – but we got enough of the performance to enjoy it. The letter was left sticking up between two floorboards and Maria took the place of Fabian, joining the two knights behind the windbreak.

Derek Jacobi as Malvolio played the whole scene very straight. He was preening himself and practising how to be even more pompous and arrogant as ever, while the hidden threesome made their comments and popped up from behind their shelter from time to time. At one point they were all three peeping out from the side of it, as in the silent comedy films.

Malvolio actually stepped over the letter before registering its presence, which was funny, and then the reading was just hilarious. His agony over the cryptic M-O-A-I was followed by the delight of realising that his name began with ‘M’, and the subsequent struggle to relate the sequence of letters was soon abandoned as the prose part gave him the absolute conviction that all his dreams had come true. The smiling took some time to get, with many a contortion appropriate to a face that hadn’t practised the technique for many a year, but his final breakthrough into a hideous grimace was warmly received by one and all. Exit Malvolio followed shortly afterwards by the eavesdroppers, and then by us for the interval.

The second half was heralded by Feste coming onto stage with a drum and playing it for quite a few minutes. It was very pleasant, and gradually built up as we got closer to the restart. Cesario entered at the back and stood listening for a while, until the drumming stopped. The question about the tabor was even more relevant this time. Viola’s comments about the difficulties of earning a living as a fool were cut, the first actual cut I’d noticed, although with a running time of two and a half hours there had to be lots. Olivia brought out a mat to lie on – planning some sunbathing from the looks of it – and even got Cesario to sit beside her on it for a short while. Olivia was much more sprightly, even flirtatious – so much for grieving over her brother. She didn’t actually jump Cesario’s bones but she looked like she wanted to. She wasn’t happy at being rebuffed again, and as she left Sir Andrew was also in the process of leaving, carrying his bag. Sir Toby, stealing most of Fabian’s lines, persuaded him to stay and lured him into challenging Cesario. After they left, Sebastian arrived in his swimsuit and started drying himself while he chatted to Antonio.

The next scene is the second comedy classic – the arrival of Malvolio in yellow stockings and cross-gartered. It’s always fun to see how they do this, and today was no exception. Having mastered the smile, Malvolio has matched it with a pair of knee-length shorts, a captain’s jacket and hat, yellow socks and a pair of x-shaped garters below each knee. The effect was as repulsive as it sounds and therefore extremely funny. Olivia was appalled and soon ran off to see Cesario, leaving Malvolio to the not-so-tender care of the very people who wished him ill.

After Malvolio left, Sir Andrew brought his challenge, and the reactions from Sir Toby and Maria told us all we need to know about how badly he’d written it. The interchanges with the two reluctant duellists seemed shorter than usual, and I felt they got less out of them than before, but the ‘fight’ was still good fun. Antonio entered and was arrested, and Cesario’s refusal to give him his purse started the long chain of events that leads to the ‘happy’ ending. It can be difficult to show why Viola doesn’t just accept that her brother is in fact alive and well, similar to the problem in The Comedy Of Errors, but here I thought she was so convinced that her brother was dead that she hesitated to believe it in case it turned out not to be true.

Now Sebastian really did turn up, and after fighting Sir Andrew briefly and almost fighting Sir Toby, Olivia turned up and stopped all this silly boys’ stuff. Then came probably the shortest bit of wooing in any of the plays, if you don’t count the amount of effort that’s gone into courting Cesario, and Olivia was absolutely delighted when Sebastian very quickly agreed to anything she wanted. Yippee!

The darkened room that Malvolio is in was represented by a hinged trapdoor raised about a foot off the floor. I think there were bars at this ‘window’, but it was dark so I couldn’t see very well. The gulling of Malvolio was much as usual, and this time it was very clear that Sir Toby knew he was out of favour and wanted to put an end to the joke. To differentiate between Sir Topaz and himself, Feste turned somersaults over the trapdoor – very impressive.

After the short scene where Sebastian agreed to go and marry Olivia, Orsino turned up at her door and has some banter with Feste, who went off to call Olivia. Antonio arrived, guarded, and then Olivia turned up, still determined not to marry Orsino. It was clear she favoured Cesario and that Orsino knew this. He and Cesario were only halfway across the stage towards the killing grounds when Olivia’s “husband” brought them back, and Cesario found he/she has a lot of explaining to do. Not that he/she has a clue how to go about it.

Sir Andrew’s arrival with a bloody head led to more confusion; when he saw the person he thought he was fighting where he doesn’t expect him to be, he was startled and also scared, keeping well away from Cesario just in case. I don’t remember if Sir Toby spotted him as well, but the knights were soon removed and as Sebastian ran on to the stage he and Viola changed places, he at the front, she at the back. The rest of the characters were gobsmacked, and the truth finally came out. Viola and Sebastian were together in the middle of the stage, and when Orsino went over to them to offer marriage to Viola, he took her by the arm and walked over to Olivia. At first I thought they were avoiding the mistaken identity option, but no. He left Viola with Olivia and walked back to Sebastian to make his proposal. Oops. It’s soon sorted, though, and then Malvolio’s letter was read out, I forget by whom, as Feste is appropriately inappropriate when he tried to read it. Malvolio was in a dirty version of the same outfit when he came on, and his “I’ll be revenged…” was said quietly to Feste first (he had just reminded him of the insult to his clowning abilities) and then he opened out the “on the whole pack of you” to include the wider group. I think that during Feste’s final song, we saw Sir Andrew leaving, bag packed, followed by Sir Toby and Maria, or Lady Maria I suppose by then, but I couldn’t swear to it. At any rate, we applauded for quite a while, as we’d enjoyed ourselves so much.

This was a straightforward, clear production, which pretty much allowed the text to do the work. The performances were very good, and the staging as simple and direct as I would expect from the Donmar. Despite cutting the comments about a fool’s job not being easy, I still found I was very aware of the difficult position of the servants in this  society and how much easier life was for the aristocrats. Good fun, and I’m very glad we booked again to see it.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Ivanov – October 2008

9/10

By Anton Chekov, English version by Tom Stoppard

Directed by Michael Grandage

Donmar in the West End

Wyndhams Theatre

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