Ivanov – Barbican Theatre, London

Writer: Anton Chekhov

Director: Timofey Kulyabin

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

The opulently named Theatre of Nations is in town and earlier this week brought the stories of Shukshin to the stage. Now it turns its hand to a more familiar name, Chekhov, and his early and rarely performed play, Ivanov, moving the action to contemporary times. The play completely stands up to this update, but a lot of the script is lost in translation.

Ivanov is a difficult play as its comedy is too broad, and its structure too melodramatic, but we still have had at least two major revivals in recent years in London, both successful. Kenneth Branagh, playing the title role, delighted critics in 2008, and David Hare’s version was a hit at the National Theatre in 2016 when it played alongside Platonov and The Seagull. The Theatre of Nations’ production, performed in Russian, is less successful, not quite finding the balance between humour and pathos.

The first two acts are hard to access; both are loud and shouty, and the second act’s birthday party is fuelled with vodka and trashy pop music. It’s difficult to know which line, transcribed in English as surtitles, corresponds to which actor, as everyone seems to be talking at once. Also the surtitles are sometimes not in synch or seem to miss out lines, meaning that much of the nuance is lost here. However, the many Russians in the audience found the second act very funny.

Ivanov’s wife is dying, but he doesn’t really love her anymore, choosing to leave her alone in the house every evening. He visits his friends the gregarious Lebedevs, but here their friendship is strained as he owes the family a considerable amount of money, and cannot even pay off the interest. When Lebedev’s daughter Sacha declares her love for Ivanov will another marriage be the way to sort out his money problems?

Ivanov is despicable, selfish and cowardly and it’s hard to believe that anyone would be able to love him and Evgeny Mironov, in the title role, seems particularly uncaring as he shouts at his wife, his uncle, the doctor; indeed, at anyone he meets. At first he seems a very one-dimensional character, but after the interval, he returns more fleshed out and his vices are shown to be the ones that we burden too. He becomes an Everyman of sorts, his dreams and promises like the broken crockery at his feet. It also helps the English speakers that the surtitles are more detailed in this third act, and so we truly get a sense of Ivanov’s disappointments and Sacha’s reasons for loving him.

It’s a long night – three hours – but the slowness adds to the doom slowing descending on Ivanov. The cast acquit themselves well especially Mironov, who is also the artistic director of the company, and Elizaveta Boyarskaya as Sacha. The wide set is functional if unimaginative, but its greys and greens add to the boredom that has settled on this community.

Perhaps if this was performed in English, this contemporary Ivanov might have more to say. It’s a very short run, playing for only two nights and with prices in the stalls more expensive than usual it seems that the Barbican has a particular audience in mind.

Runs until 12 October 2019 | Image: Sergey Pertov

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