27 September 2008
Branagh's back - and it's magnificent
I always think that the best acting performances are when it doesn’t look like acting. Instead it’s as if you are peeking through a window and taking a sneaky look at a slice of someone else’s life. And this is exactly what I felt when watching Kenneth Branagh in the title role of Chekov’s Ivanov.
Tom Stoppard's new version of the Russian’s early play, directed by Michael Grandage is also a fine example of something that is not just your average revival of an old play, trotting out the words with no new insight or surprise. This is an eye-opening version that makes you realise that some 19th century problems still have resonance today and probably always will. It also shows the dual nature of life and how its tragedy and comedy do not just sit side by side, the co-exist.
And it wasn’t just the references to the financial situation that brought knowing laughter from the audience, it’s the portrayal of a man with problems that could easily be transferred to the 21st century.
Ivanov has been described as “Hamlet with a mid-life crisis” and indeed there are many references to the Dane throughout the play.
But instead of being paranoid about his mother’s new husband, this man is heavily in debt and has fallen out of love with his sick wife and is instead attracted to a younger woman.
Every night he escapes to his neighbours, the Lebedevs to whom he owes money. But this only makes him feel more guilty when Sasha (Andrea Riseborough), their 20-year-old daughter, throws herself at him.
The play deals with both his heroic and un-heroic struggle to do something about the mess his life has sunk into. He therefore has an “everyman” quality about him, having to deal with problems that are subjects that still have to be dealt with today.
Kenneth Branagh brilliantly deals with what is essentially the breakdown of a man in a performance that is both moving and hilarious at the same time. You really feel for him at the same time as wanting to shake him. However, you also know that he feels what he feels and there is nothing that anyone can do to get him out of and as such is an accurate portrayal of what is essentially a mental illness.
Basically, his dissatisfaction with life is shown to be more than just boredom. The real tedium and monotony of life are portrayed brilliantly by the other characters when they assemble in Zinaida’s (Sylvestra Le Touzel) living room to play cards, sip vodka, gossip and complain about the monotony of their lives. But against all this, Ivanov’s situation is clearly more serious and shows the difference between feeling a bit low and being depressed, something that can be very difficult to grasp.
He is also, for the most part, honest about his feelings although this doesn’t do him any good either. In fact, in the end he goes from hero to zero in a trice as when he fails in his efforts to do the right thing he ends up doing it wrong.
It all sounds a bit depressing doesn’t it? But the play is, in fact, hilarious and this is largely due to Tom Stoppard’s fantastic adaptation which brings the language right up to date while still setting it in the late 19th century. It is a lesson in how people’s problems don’t change but also shows the humour in Chekhov and as his aim was to “show life plain”, it shows the humour in life as well. It is a stark reminder that you can be utterly ludicrous but tragic at the same time – a nod towards today’s celebrity culture as well! Branagh’s Ivanov knows that he is being ridiculous, but his feelings of guilt and shame are still palpable.
And just like life and just like all the best plays, you can swing from laughter to despair in a second and there is no better example of this than the final scene. And Branagh does it all naturally with superb timing.
The play goes some way to answering the question of whether Chekhov’s plays are comedies. The answer to this, as Stoppard eloquently puts in the programme is, “Is life?” and what’s clear in this, is that in showing this particular slice of life, well then yes, life is!
Great as he is, this production isn’t all about Branagh though. It’s an excellent cast with fine performances from the aforementioned Sylvestra Le Touzel as the domineering Zinaida, Lorcan Cranitch as Borkin and Malcolm Sinclair as Shabelsky to name just three.
And what can you say about the lovely Gina McKee who plays his tubercular wife Anna Petrovna, a woman who in this portrayal is as forlorn as she is beautiful and I want to be as beautiful as Gina McKee. Mr FB says yes, she's beautiful but she’s a stick. I tell you - I really wouldn't mind being a beautiful stick. And I really, really wouldn’t mind seeing this fantastic production again! It’s the perfect example of everything that theatre should be.