ComedyLondonReview

Young Chekhov: Ivanov – National Theatre, London

Writer: Anton Chekhov (adapted by David Hare)
Director: Jonathan Kent
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

A game player, depressive, self-absorbed, troubled, tortured, unwholesome and let down by life, is Ivanov a good man? This is the central question of Chekhov’s 1887 play, which examines the nature of guilt and suffering as well as the difference between how things appear to those on the outside. Adapted by David Hare in 1997, this version of Ivanov has transferred to the National Theatre from Chichester as part of the Young Chekhov mini-season celebrating his early plays.

Ivanov is a man let down by life and, at 35, feeling the weight of his lost youth. As the play opens, his farm is in debt after heavy investment in ‘progressive’ ideas, his wife is dying of tuberculosis, and Ivanov feels trapped and helpless in his estate. He escapes to his neighbours the Lebedevs where he is engaged in a flirtation with their daughter, Sasha. As rumours begin to fly about his decency, Ivanov sinks further into ignominy bringing misery to all around him.

“I am a contagion!” Ivanov declares and, in Geoffrey Streatfeild’s intense and electrifying performance, the audience observes how catastrophic his impact on the community is. As the play opens, he’s already a man at a fever pitch, riven with pain, anguish and despair, Streatfeild almost writhes in agony every moment his Ivanov is alive. Everywhere he goes, even to the happy party-filled home of his friends, his presence alters the mood, hanging like a cloud over events. A sense that he is ground down by life and entirely broken, as he verbally declares, are clear and pitiable, and despite his loathsome actions, Streatfeild gives him moments of sympathy that create depth to the endless misery.

One of the best parts of this production is the lively cast of characters surrounding Ivanov, who form a happy and believable community. Emma Amos’Marfusha is a comic delight, and forms an excellent team of saucy middle-aged women with Debra Gillett’s Zinaida and Beverley Klein’s Avdotya that bring a wonderful energy to the second Act. Interestingly, it is the women who hold all the power in this play, with Zinaida acting as the local money-lender, while determined Sasha, a feisty and stubborn Olivia Vinall, pushes and insists on Ivanov’s affection for her until he cannot resist.

The supporting male roles are likewise hilarious and enjoyable in turn. Peter Egan’s (pictured above) Count Shabyelski, Ivanov’s uncle, enjoys his single status but takes a much simpler approach to life than his nephew, contracting a marriage deal based solely on money, rather than protracted and intense talk of love, and breaks it just as easily. This contrast between the simpler way in which the older characters live compared to the emotional tortures of the young is one of the highlights of the production.

Des McAleer adds another dimension with the role of carefree friend, and James McArdle’s doctor is the play’s conscience, while Jonathan Coy’s Pavel Lebedev is a man tired of society and the control of his wife but able to force Ivanov to think clearly. Together they represent a generation that didn’t risk innovation, like Ivanov, but ended up the happier for it.

Jonathan Kent directs with flair here and, unlike Platonov, the moments of comedy and tragedy blur perfectly together, helping to build the tension and lead to Ivanov’s ultimate act, while Tom Pye’s Platonov set is cleverly repurposed to represent a number of slightly higher class homes. It is a tad too long with the final moments feeling overly prolonged and melodramatic, while Ivanov’s sudden resolution to be with Sasha doesn’t feel entirely convincing.

Many comparisons will be made with Hamlet, which is repeatedly referenced by Ivanov himself and the soul-searching nature of this play even contains a ‘To be or not to be’-style soliloquy. Yet, Ivanov himself is a more troubled character and a far less worthy man, which David Hare’s adaptation and Streatfield’s performance evoke. The community and the audience may judge Ivanov’s callous and self-absorbed nature, but this production lays bare the troubled soul of the man within.

Runs until8 October 2016| Image: Johan Persson

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