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A CurtainUp Review

I feel trapped by a constant feeling of inertia and I haven't got the energy to understand why.

-- Ivanov
Owen Teale as Ivanov
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
See if you can figure out where we are. "I am so bored. I am so depressed. Can I change? I can't change. I'll kill myself."

You guessed it! Central Russia in the 1880's seen through the eyes of Chekhov. Unfortunately this is the young Chekhov working on his first extended drama and Ivanov comes across as a sneaky parody of the great work to come.

Does Ivanov deserve to be revived at all? Elyse Sommer certainly thought so when she saw the 1997 Beaumont production with Kevin Kline. Ivanov However, this version, directed by Katie Mitchell at the National Theatre, is another samovar of fish.

Chekhov clearly wanted to create the character of a complex man. His Ivanov is a landowner who is on the wrong side of history. Forces beyond his control are sweeping him away, leaving him apathetic and unresisting, but with a painful awareness of his predicament. He will be defeated, he will lose his land, he will leave his home, he will go into the unknown. In his small way Ivanov stands for every ordinary Russian whose life was turned into tragedy by the turbulent century to come.

But there is more to Ivanov. This is a man whose sense of honour will not let him profit from a legal, if crafty, deal. A man who will not take money from a friend to pay off a loan, even though defaulting on the debt will ruin him. A man of refinement, a man of learning, a man with insight. But also a man who, when told his wife will soon die, betrays no obvious reaction, goes out to a party and seduces the naïve -- if willing -- young daughter of his best friend. A man who torments his uncle. A man who cannot bring himself to comfort a terminally ill woman, let alone inform her of her fate, until he loses his temper, calls her a "Jewish bitch" and bluntly tells her she is dying. A man who, unfairly accused of many other things, considers it a monstrous injustice even to have to defend himself.

Ivanov is one of Dostoyevsky's divided, self-loathing, all-too-human monsters. But this production places him squarely in the theatre of middle-aged male self-pity. This is never very attractive, even to self-pitying middle-aged males. Kevin Kline would have given some light to the shade in Ivanov's character, presenting the witty, charming and amusing side of a man so attractive he beguiles away an heiress from her unforgiving parents and can still turn the heads of young beauties. Owen Teale in this production is a grim, gruff, grumbling character who looks as if he was born complaining that the womb was too dark and the world too bright. Teale is good at losing his temper, but never suggests the other sides of this complex man. You cannot see what he has declined from, and so he becomes an irritating self-obsessed bore.

The rest of the cast work very hard to give Ivanovcredibility. In particular, Juliet Aubrey contrives to make Ivanov's wife tragic, rather than the drip she could so easily be. She faints to the manner born and has a fine, ladylike, consumptive cough. Philip Voss has fun as Count Matvey, the impoverished count who must marry vulgarity to achieve refinement. Peter Wight gives his role as Ivanov's friend some tragic intensity. Robert Bowman cranks up his adrenalin as the priggish doctor whose integrity is a raging fever that threatens to burst him on stage. Stuart McQuarrie's Borkin, the amiable buffoon who is the equivalent of cable television for his isolated community, alone and unaccountably, speaks in a Scottish accent throughout. Indira Varma's Sasha is so alive you wonder what she can possibly see in Ivanov.

Chekhov's sophisticated four act symmetrical structure is sadly paired with weak dialogue. There is too much clunky repetition of basic information, which could surely have been edited out from this version by David Harrower. All too often Chekhov forces clichéd dialogue on his characters rather than let words come naturally from within them, as if he were imitating the idea of a play. He would soon put this right, but too late for Ivanov.

Katie Mitchell's direction has sluggish rhythms which need tightening to remove the play's longueurs. But she should know that having twelve characters perfectly still on stage while one talks is not ensemble acting. Nor is it a thoughtful tableau suggesting the endless wastes and social lethargy of Central Russia: it is just wasteful and boring.

There are powerful scenes in Ivanov: the sick wife begging her selfish husband not to leave her, their last argument, Ivanov at bay to a succession of tormentors, the wedding where everyone is crying, and at which the lowering Ivanov arrives like the black icing on a cake of mud. There are themes that Chekhov later polished into dramatic gold: strong women with soft hearts and other ironies of love, the pig-headed stupidity of clever people, the yearning for, and impossibility of, change, the vast immemorial boredom of Tsarist Russia. "I'm so bored I could take a run at a wall," says one character. After two and a half hours, so could I.

Chekhov's humour is more like Gogol's or Dickens' than the detached irony he later developed. The characters - well-acted by a highly professional cast - could be more rounded. In a rare touch of wit the slimy and malicious tax collector is mischievously made up to look like Lenin, the man who would ultimately destroy this entire way of life.

The minimal set design, by Vicki Mortimer, is effective in the small Cottesloe space and does not distract us. The costumes are tasteful and apt but one cannot help wondering if part of the misery of these gentlefolk comes from being so over-dressed in such hot weather. Another source of woe for the men might well be the absence of decent hair-grooming products. Certainly the only barber in the region appears to be a sadist, if not a revolutionary, determined to make all landowners look ridiculous and thus speed the coming of the Bolsheviks.

There are things to enjoy in this production, but it is a curiosity. Chekhov is groping towards a true understanding of his material and how to use it. This is the play he had to write before he was ready for his masterpieces: I just don't think that we have to see it.

Written by Anton Chekhov
in a new version by David Harrower
Directed by Katie Mitchell

Designed by Vicki Mortimer
Starring: Owen Teale, Juliet Aubrey, Indira Varma
With: Robert Bowman, Sarah flind, Gillian Hanna, Christopher Hunter, Sean Jackson, Stuart McQuarrie, Sarah Northgraves, Tom Peters, Philip Voss Janet Whiteside, Peter Wight
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound Designer: Gareth Fry
Movement: Struan Leslie
Music Director: Melissa Holding
Running time: Two hours 35 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 12th October 2002
Reviewed by Brian Clover based on 16th September 2002 performance at the Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Tube Station: Waterloo)
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