Andrea Riseborough & Kenneth Branagh/PH:Joan Marcus
Chekhov called his plays comedies, a description which usually baffles audiences who rarely find much to laugh at what Kenneth Tynan memorably called the "dynamic apathy" of his characters.
It requires acting and direction of the highest quality, as well as a brilliant translation, to get the balance between laughter and tears absolutely right - a feat which Michael Grandage, his exceptional cast, and adapter Tom Stoppard majesterially achieve in their vibrant new version of Ivanov.
Written in a matter of days when Chekhov was 27, the play initially baffled audiences unsure of whether Ivanov (Kenneth Branagh), an impoverished landowner, was a hero or a villain.
Marinated in self-loathing, contemptuous of the world in general and himself in particular, totally unable to make a go of his crumbling estate and out of love with his tubercular wife Anna Petrovna (Gina McKee) who gave up her Jewish faith (and with it her dowry) to marry him, Ivanov is clearly on the verge of a breakdown.
To escape from the claustrophobia of his stultifying existence, he makes regular nocturnal visits to his neighbours, the Lebedevs, whose crumbling open house is dominated by its penny-pinching hostess Zinaida (Sylvestra Le Touzel) and her bumbling, kindly husband, Lebedev (Kevin R McNally).
For Ivanov, though, the main attraction of these guilty forays is Sasha (Andrea Riseborough), the Lebedev's attractive daughter who is in thrall to his misery.
The cast list is completed by a collection of typically Chekhovian characters such as Borkin (LLorcan Cranitch), Ivanov's forever scheming estate manager, out to fleece whoever he can Shabelsky (Malcolm Sinclair), an aristocratic cynic as disillusioned with himself and with life as is Ivanov, Kosykh (James Tucker) a tax inspector boringly obsessed with card-playing, and, most toxic of all, Lvov (Tom Hiddleston) Anna Petrovna's infuriatingly self-righteous doctor forever castigating Ivanov for his callous treatment of his ailing wife.
All these characters add texture and the occasional farcical touch to the slender plot- line. Particularly memorable are Sinclair and McNally whose superb performances resonate triumphantly.
Though Anna Petrovna and her rival Sasha are by no means two of Chekhov's more memorable heroines (those were to come in his later plays), McKee and Riseborough both leave vivid imprerssions.
As for Ivanov himself, Kenneth Branagh gives an intense, tortured performance which approaches greatness in a remarkable scene when, after generously being offered money by Lebedev to repay a long-standing debt to Zinaida, his grasping wife, he crumbles silently and abjectly at his would-be benefactor's feet, desolate, despairing, destroyed. It's as if you're looking into the dark abyss of a broken man's soul.
That said, what his performance, fine as it is, lacks, is anything resembling sex- appeal or charisma.
Tom Stoppard's freewheeling and witty adaptation dazzlingly excavates the absurdity of Ivanov's self-flaggelation and abject misery without undermining it, Christopher Oram's sets - from the bleached barreness of Ivanov's estate to the murky, candle-lit gloom of the Lebedev's front room, are wonderfully atmospheric so is Adam Cork's music.
Michael Grandage's direction is flawless throughout. In a single stroke this wonderful revival rejuvenates the West End and bodes well for the Donmar's season of four classic plays at Wyndham's.