I have long struggled with Chekhov, I’ve never really seen the attraction or seen a production that made me understand why he is so well regarded as a dramatist. So when the Donmar Warehouse announced a hugely star-studded season of plays to be performed in the West End, at the Wyndhams Theatre, my heart sank a little bit to see that the first play was Ivanov, by none other than Anton Chekhov. But in a new version by Tom Stoppard, directed by Michael Grandage and featuring the return to the London stage of Kenneth Branagh, this emerged as a production that might actually have convinced me that people are onto something here!
The key to my enjoyment here was all about the humour that is threaded throughout the evening so that the dour tragedy that is something of a trademark is leavened with something else and introduces a wider palette of emotion so that the ‘tragedy’ becomes well, more tragic for being contrasted with something else on offer. So Ivanov, seeking escape from his TB-ridden wife whom he no longer loves, rocks up at the neighbours’ house on a regular basis despite owing them money and a daughter there who has designs on him. When discovered together, society turns it disapproving eye on him but it turns out there’s a far harsher critic in Ivanov himself.
Branagh is simply superb as the title character, capturing so much of the ridiculousness of what he is like and what is going on but also acknowledging how serious the predicament is. The ensemble around Branagh is stuffed full of brilliantly observed performances: Gina McKee is heartbreaking as Anna, the woman who has sacrificed huge amounts to be with the man she loves despite his shortcomings, Andrea Riseborough’s Sasha traces a highly affecting journey from innocence to a much more worldly-wise viewpoint and there’s an excellent company of maudlin drunks and odd sorts played by the likes of Malcolm Sinclair, Kevin R McNally and Lorcan Cranitch.
It looks and sounds beautiful, very much the Donmar sensibility just amped up to fill the expanded space and it very much works here. And combined with a stunning central performance from Branagh with a top-notch ensemble around him, this was a highly revelatory evening for me: I liked a Chekhov play.