I found myself curiously unmoved by Kenneth Branagh's performance in Chekhov's early play, but it was a rewarding evening nonetheless. Donmar director Michael Grandage and some of the cast (but not Branagh) were on stage afterwards to discuss the play with Whatsonstage.com's theatregoers. Terri Paddock asked Michael to define the Donmar style, but the question was answered by actor Malcolm Sinclair, who said the great pleasure for the cast was that they didn't feel they were creating 'director's theatre'. In other words, Grandage was content to let Chekhov's words speak for themselves rather than trying to stamp his own directorial vision on the play. I instantly conjured up a memory of an interminable and humourless production by star German director Peter Stein of The Cherry Orchard which I saw a few years ago in Edinburgh. I'm not a huge fan of continental 'director's theatre', though I would exempt the great Peter Brook from that definition. As Grandage pointed out, Wyndham's theatre (now looking very spick and span after a six-month refurbishment) has about 750 seats, three times more than the Donmar, but the acting area on stage is about the same. This production managed to keep most of the intimacy of the smaller parent theatre.
I've seen this play just once, in an unsatisfactory production in the Cottesloe a few years ago. Much of what is distinctive about the four great plays he wrote at the end of his life is here -- the ensemble scenes with their seemingly random dialogue, the delicate balance between tragedy and comedy, the sense of characters who are trying to turn their lives into self-invented melodramas. But there are some differences. Ivanov has soliloquies directed at the audience, something which Chekhov never used in his later plays. And there is less sense of the social background of late 19th century Russia and the breakdown of its ossified class system. Ivanov is unfortunately a one-dimensional character who doesn't develop between the start of the play and the end. There's no real journey for him to travel between hope and despair, no moment at which his illusions are punctured. He's a study in clinical depression, though the word itself is carefully avoided in Tom Stoppard's lively version. My feeling is that Chekhov probably realised after writing this play that depressive characters don't have proper relationships with other people, and decided not to do the same thing again. The despair of Sonya and Vanya at the end of Uncle Vanya carries much more emotional weight because of the frantic moments of hope and optimism that have come before. The other characters have crushed their dreams, but neither of them is clinically ill. Konstantin in The Seagull also goes on a long journey to suicide in which his dreams are destroyed. By contrast, Ivanov's relationships with his sick wife, his boozy friends and later with his neighbour's daughter Sasha are all doomed before the play has started. Branagh's performance reminded me strongly of the last time I saw him on stage, in David Mamet's Edmond at the National in 2003. That was another portrait of a loner cracking up, of a man with no real relationships. I have to say I didn't share the critical superlatives that were lavished on him after the first night. I got the feeling that last night's performance, perhaps because the actors knew there would be a post-show discussion, was being taken far too fast. The end of the show is supposed to be around 10.15, but it was all over by 10, and Branagh seemed to be hurrying through his final speeches at breakneck speed, as if he had a table booked at the Ivy.
I liked the strong performances by Tom Hiddleston as the priggish doctor Lvov, the prototype for the empty moralisers whom Chekhov skewered in his later plays, by Malcom Sinclair as the embittered old count Shabelsky, and by Gina McKee as Ivanov's neglected and tubercular wife. I was less enchanted by Andrea Riseborough as Sasha, whose bouncy arm-waving girlishness seemed a little out of period. This play has less of a sense of time and place than the later Chekhov masterpieces. In the opening scene I was a bit puzzled to see Ivanov sitting on what appeared to be a wooden beer crate (more Beckett than Chekhov?) rather than a comfy chair, but I greatly enjoyed Christopher Oram's design for the third act, which is set in Ivanov's disorganised den, with papers, junk and dead rabbits strewn about in what the Russians call nerazberikha or a mess.
Ivanov is an unsympathetic character, but he doesn't deserve the haughty moral condemnation of the doctor. He behaves badly, but he's ill and suicidal. Today we'd say he needed help, as some of the actors pointed out in the discussion. Chekhov the doctor isn't saying that morality doesn't exist, but he's exploring the boundaries between morality and mental health in a way that still rings true today. As a staging post on the way to The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, this play is fascinating.