The title character of Anton Chekhov's first performed full-length play Ivanov may be beyond redemption, but the rehabilitation of this previously long neglected play continues apace.
Originally premiered in Moscow in 1887 (when it received only three performances), it didn't reach London until 1925, and wasn't revived again here until 1950. Few productions have followed; but in 1997 the Almeida produced it with Ralph Fiennes in the title role, and later the same year New York's Lincoln Center Theatre did it too, with Kevin Kline. Now, just five years later, here is Chekhov's burnt-out, debt-ridden, lovelorn anti-hero again, with Welsh actor Owen Teale in the title role at the National's Cottesloe.
Katie Mitchell - who directed the best Uncle Vanya in my memory at the Young Vic, and I say that even as I am in eager anticipation for the new Sam Mendes production at the Donmar Warehouse - applies a scalpel-like precision to conveying the naturalistic rhythms of Chekhovian drama.
The audience become eavesdroppers to the drama being played out before them. This is intensified here by a traverse staging for which designer Vicki Mortimer has in fact created a double-sided proscenium that is open on both sides, thus bringing the audience into very intimate and personal contact with the action, or rather (for most of the piece's duration) inaction.
Since this is a play where the most frequently voiced complaint of its characters is of stupefying boredom and dissatisfaction, such close contact runs the risk of making us identify with their weariness too readily. Certainly the opening two acts are exercises in looking back in languor; but after the interval, the drama catches fire, and there's a near operatic intensity to the onward rush of events with which the story hurriedly concludes.
That hurry is down to the inexperience of Chekhov as a playwright, but it's Mitchell's deep experience as a director that makes Ivanov seem so tangible, so real and so inevitable. And Teale perfectly captures the resigned self-loathing of a man, locked into an unhappy marriage to a dying woman (Juliet Aubrey). When Sasha Lebedev (Indira Varma) falls in love with him - and it is to her parents (Peter Wight and Gillian Hanna) that he is seriously in debt - instead of redemption, only disaster awaits.
Ultimately, this is a haunting, harrowing portrait of depression, and Mitchell's production is riveting.
- Mark Shenton