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First Published 18 September 2008, Last Updated 18 September 2008

Kenneth Branagh, who once played the melancholic Dane, Hamlet, so memorably, now takes on the role of Ivanov, a man unable to extract himself from his own despair. Caroline Bishop was in the first night audience at the Wyndham’s theatre.

Appropriately, Hamlet is frequently referenced throughout Ivanov. And like Hamlet, Chekhov’s play mixes tragedy and highly-charged emotion with a surprising amount of laugh-out-loud humour, all of which are exploited to the full in director Michael Grandage’s riveting production.

At the centre of the play is Ivanov, a man who, over the last year, has lost all desire for life. Debt hangs over him and the love he once felt for his wife Anna – the pale-faced Gina McKee – has gone. But these ‘reasons’ almost seem beside the point. Frequently Branagh’s Ivanov says he doesn’t understand why he is swimming in a pit of despair, why he hates himself so much and why he cannot change his melancholic mood.  He treats his friends with derision and has no feelings for anything, to the point that he can’t even bring himself to give his wife, who is dying from Tuberculosis, the love and care that she needs. Caught up in his own selfishness, Ivanov’s treatment of this woman who once sacrificed her religion and fortune for him, is at one point unforgivably cruel.

And yet, Branagh’s heartfelt portrayal of a man tortured by his own mind prompts sympathy, especially in the last two acts of this four act play, when his speeches to the audience reach the point of rambling obsession. Did Chekhov suffer from depression? His vivid depiction of Ivanov’s despair and self-hatred would suggest so. Chekhov was a doctor as well as a playwright, and perhaps knew more about the state of melancholy than the general public at the time. Here he depicts the lack of understanding that existed surrounding this condition. Neither Ivanov himself, his friends, nor even Anna’s young doctor Lvov – who deplores Ivanov’s behaviour – understand that there may have been an underlying medical cause.

Providing a much needed antidote to the emotionally-wrought subject matter, the play – helped by Tom Stoppard’s translation – is packed with humour, every ounce of which is extracted by this cast. Lorcan Cranitch and Malcolm Sinclair as Ivanov’s colleagues and friends Borkin and Shabelsky, and particularly Kevin R McNally as landowner Lebedev, are hilarious in their inept and dismissive attitude to Ivanov’s mood.  They find bait in Tom Hiddleston’s overly moralistic Lvov, whose complete lack of humour also manages to provoke laughs. And Sylvestra Le Touzel’s money-loving Zinaida, wife of Lebedev, has a deftness of expression that shows in one amusing eyebrow-lift how boring she finds life as a Russian landowner’s wife. In fact, a tongue-in-cheek scene in the Lebedevs’ sepia-toned drawing room, where a tedious card game is the only entertainment, suggests that anyone would be driven to depression by life in 19th century Russia.

Andrea Riseborough as pretty young Sasha is a beacon in the boredom with her almost childish energy and vivacious demeanour. But even she – determined though she is – cannot save the man she loves, Ivanov, from his own demons. Pushed by his conscience, in the human form of Lvov, Ivanov takes the only path he feels is left to him.

Grandage’s production is the first in the Donmar Warehouse’s year-long West End season. Branagh returns to the Wyndham’s next year to direct Jude Law as another melancholic character that Branagh knows so well – Hamlet.



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