The 250 theatregoers at our twice sold-out Whatsonstage.com Outing to the Donmar West End season’s inaugural production, Ivanov, at Wyndham’s Theatre last night (7 October 2008) were treated to an exclusive post-show discussion with cast members Malcolm Sinclair, Andrea Riseborough, Lucy Briers, Gina McKee, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Tom Hiddleston and Linda Broughton as well as a last-minute surprise guest, Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage, who helmed the production.

Ivanov was Chekhov’s first full-length play, written when he was 27, and has been newly translated by Tom Stoppard. The production, which stars Kenneth Branagh in the title role, opened to great critical acclaim on 17 September 2008 and continues until 29 November 2008. Once a man of limitless promise, Ivanov (Branagh) is plunged into debt. His marriage is in crisis, and his evenings are spent negotiating loans, avoiding love affairs and fighting to resist the small town jealousies and intrigues which threaten to engulf his life.

The Donmar’s year-long residency at the West End’s 750-seat Wyndham’s Theatre, running concurrently with ongoing regular programming at its 250-seat Covent Garden home base, comprises four high-profile productions. Following Ivanov, there’s Twelfth Night, with Derek Jacobi as Malvolio from 10 December 2008 (previews from 5 December) to 7 March 2009; the UK premiere of Madame de Sade from 18 March (previews from 13 March) to 23 May 2009; and finally Hamlet, with Jude Law in the title role, from 3 June (previews from 29 May) to 22 August 2009. The first three are all directed by Michael Grandage with the last helmed by Branagh, who is the season’s artistic associate.

Also in the 19-strong Ivanov cast are Lorcan Cranitch, Kevin R McNally, Malcolm Ridley, Ian Drysdale, James Howard, James Tucker, John Atterbury, Emma Beattie, Jonathan Battersby and Giovanna Falcone. The production is designed by Christopher Oram, with lighting by Paule Constable and music and sound by Adam Cork.

Last night’s discussion took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …


On working for the Donmar

Sylvestra Le Touzel: It was part of the attraction of this production that it was a Donmar production.

Lucy Briers: Absolutely. There is a fantastic kind of ethos behind the whole season. Also it is great to be injecting a bit of, I am going to put my neck out here, but a bit of good classical theatre back into the West End. I think it has been sorely missed. It is fantastic, and at affordable prices, so I don’t feel embarrassed about saying to my mates that they should come along because I know it’s going to be affordable.

Le Touzel: I have felt worried in the past about the high seat price because I do worry that it is prohibitive to huge sections of the community. It has always been a concern for me, so this is something that I think is excellent. Michael talked about audience development a lot when we started the rehearsals, as in bringing new people into the theatre. They might be the people buying the £10 seats and having a very special experience. I think that is terribly important for the future of theatre so I am proud to be part of that.

Andrea Riseborough: For want of less pedestrian words, I think that (the Donmar West End season) is very fresh and exciting, which is exactly how it feels. It feels very close to my heart because Tom (Hiddleston) and I just recently left drama school. To be able to come along and pay such a relatively small amount to see some really wonderful Chekhov - and I am not talking about my particular performance - is a fantastically exciting thing. I am the worst dinner conversation at the moment because if anyone asks me what I am doing then they can’t shut me up.

Linda Broughton: The thing about the Donmar is that it feels as though everybody who is associated with it is pulling in the same direction and is passionate about the work. It should always be the case but it isn’t, and I really feel that at the Donmar they have got that right. There is the most fantastic team working down the road as we are working here, and we are all working to the same end and that is special.

On the Donmar West End season

Michael Grandage: The idea for the season started because sometimes when you run a theatre with only 250 seats, it is difficult to accommodate everybody, and it is not very nice to put out a full house sign every night, even though it is what every producer in the world wants. Actually, when you run a subsidised theatre, it is not something you do want to do very often. You want to say, ‘we can accommodate everybody so just keep coming’. At the Donmar, we try to have ticket prices lower than in the West End, and hopefully to make theatre accessible to more people. I thought it would be nice to see whether certain actors would like to do that on a slightly bigger scale so that we could accommodate more people, and that was really how the whole idea of the Donmar West End season started.

The only thing that is very different about our season in the West End is that there are more dressing rooms backstage than the two that we have at the Donmar. Otherwise we try to address everything in the same way we usually do. An interesting fact is that the stage that we are on here (at Wyndham’s Theatre) is exactly the same stage size as at the Donmar. Everyone assumes that because we’re in a West End theatre it’s twice the size but it’s not …

Ideally, although this is quite a designed show in terms of sets, what the Donmar stands for is acting first. We have a fantastic back wall at the Donmar, and we have a relatively simple space, so although there are a few honourable exceptions, quite often it is about our approach to casting and our approach to design as well as our approach to producing the overall package. That all comes out of a group of people rather than a building. So if we can bring that way of working to another theatre, then it can be part of the Donmar experience as well, and that’s what we are trying to do with this season.

On the success of this production

Malcolm Sinclair: What Michael can’t say, but I can, is that this is not director’s theatre. Even though it is directed by one of the best directors in the country, it is not a vehicle for that director. I read an interview with Sam West, who has just directed a very good play called Waste which is at the Almeida. He said that the mark of a marvellous director like Michael is that you don’t see any sign of it. All you see is a good play and a good production. That, it seems to me, is why a lot us love to be asked to work with Michael.

Grandage: I couldn’t have put it better myself!

On the popularity of Chekhov

Sinclair: I think Chekhov reflects a particularly English sensibility. We love our comedy. The other thing is that for English people, often what they say is not the most important thing. What is important is what is going on elsewhere while it is being said. Unlike Ibsen. I have just finished an Ibsen play (Rosmersholm at the Almeida). He says immediately what he really means. I think the difficult thing with Chekhov is to make it feel Russian. It could easily be a lot of English people wandering about in their living room going ‘oh god, life is so boring’.

Le Touzel: The shift from tragedy to comedy is rapid. I think sometimes Kenneth and Kevin feel concerned when there is laughter towards the end of the play, but we’re listening in the wings and we love it. The closer to the gunshot that people are laughing, the better. I think it’s hard for them to feel confident about that because they worry that the audience are not taking it seriously.

Grandage: Ivanov is not generally regarded as being a mature work in the way some of his other plays are. That was one of the things that Tom Stoppard was attracted to. He didn’t necessarily want to bring it in line with the other plays, but I think he wanted to give it a fair hearing and find out whether it had things to say that maybe it hadn’t said in previous productions if he did some fine-tuning. It was very interesting working with a writer who is a mature writer, and who was working with the work of a very young writer. That was an amazing combination. We also managed to get a group of actors together who really wanted to excavate even the smallest role which was very exciting. This is a play that is not performed very much at all, especially in comparison to how many Seagulls and Cherry Orchards and Uncle Vanyas we have.

On depression

Riseborough: We have not talked about the ‘d’ word during the process at all. But the first piece of advice that I would give to someone who is in Ivanov’s situation today is to go and get some help. We talk about it now in a different way, we have a platform on which to explore all of these things that wasn’t available then, or wasn’t seen as being as important. I think the best advice to give him would be to talk to someone about it. The thing with suicide, of course, is that people cannot see another end. I’m not saying that’s what suicide is, but that is part of what it is. He is trapped in this world, this quite dreary landscape of monotony, and really the end of imperialism and people not really knowing what their purpose is. The Trans-Siberian Express hadn’t been finished yet so there is a feeling that there is no way out. They are in a very difficult period of limbo which is reflected emotionally in the characters. Chekhov captures that incredibly in this play. To my mind he captures it better in this play than in any of the others.

Gina McKee: In modern terms, we look at our mental health in a different way, still not as openly as we should, but I suppose there are blueprints and examples in place which you can look to for comfort.

Grandage: One of the interesting things that Tom has done with the play is that he has taken out the word depression completely. He has substituted something every single time. Every time any of the characters speak of Ivanov’s condition during the course of the play they never ever say the word ‘depressed’. There is every single possible euphemism and alternative, which I think is one of the ways that we have avoided the 21st-century options that you could easily add: just get him some Prozac or something and it would be fine.

Le Touzel: It is interesting to hear this talk about depression. A friend of mine who suffers from bi-polar disorder did come to see the play. I asked him how helpful the diagnosis of depression had been to him and he gave a rather evasive kind of answer, but of course that is what we do have these days, a label. I think that does help to a certain extent. The moment that I love in the play is when Borkin says to Nikolai, ‘you’re alright’, and it makes me think of all the times that we say to a friend or someone who is depressed ‘you’re alright, it is going to be alright’. But of course, it isn’t really. I think that is very beautiful. He so wants it to be alright, but it’s impossible - apart from the obvious way out which would be to shoot Zinaida at the beginning of Act II.

Lucy Briers: If only he would get the money that he mentions is owed to him by a character we never see. I always think, every time that I hear that line, if he just did that he would have sixteen thousand rubles. That’s the beauty of the work. This wonderful thing is just left hanging up there and every audience member is wondering why he doesn’t just go and do that, but that’s what happens in life - you have the opportunities that aren’t taken and your life just goes in a completely different direction. It’s genius.

On vocal warm-ups

Briers: Tom Hiddleston is the master of vocal and physical warm-ups. As a small personal tribute to him, I just want to say that I can now touch my toes without bending my legs for the first time since about 1990. He is fantastic.

Tom Hiddleston: We all arrive at about 6.30pm and we have half an hour on stage, just messing around and getting fully limber.

Briers: I tried it with jeans a couple of times and then went for loose clothing.

On the critical reaction

Grandage: We have had a great reception from critics. I do think that ,in one way, the critics reflect audiences generally, or at least they try to, and one thing that I think audiences enjoy is seeing a big and wonderful ensemble acting together in a big ensemble play. That’s something that doesn’t necessarily get done very often. This is a huge cast for us (19), almost as many as a musical. There has been a great response to that aspect alone.

Sinclair: Again, Michael you can’t say this, but when Michael was starting the season and when actors were being asked to do it, we were all frightfully flattered to be asked so that he has got a very good cast, if I may say so.

Grandage: Yes, what we have is a full company of leading actors. I think that has been acknowledged because the quality of the performance has clearly impacted on many people. It’s a lovely thing to behold when you go to the theatre.

On the rehearsal process & previews

Grandage: We had five weeks in the rehearsal room and then we came into the theatre and had four days of rehearsals with lights and then we opened previews. That is a sort of standard rehearsal period for a production of roughly this size.

Briers: Michael does this brilliant thing in the last week of rehearsing in the rehearsal room where you’re suddenly all in full costume, and you’ve got the sound queues coming in so, by the time you get into the theatre, you feel like you live in those costumes, and you’ve already got the sound sculpture in your head. The only thing that I found daunting were the French doors. That was about it.

Le Touzel: That is a very good point because there was a tremendous support, and talking about the Donmar team, the stage management and the costume department, everybody, was tremendously helpful so we had the right costumes, the right props and the right furniture from very early on. That makes an enormous difference to your confidence as an actor and your ability to build a character, so we were hugely well supported by the whole unit.

Grandage: The reason for that is that we can’t afford to do a huge amount of previews because we need to get the thing selling. The longer the preview period happens, the longer you put off any sort of announcement that it is actually open. Like we do at the Donmar, because we have to, we had a very short preview period, three or four performances. In America they have four weeks or more! The whole thing about the rehearsal room and getting ahead of ourselves is really just so those four previews are as close as we can be to ready for all of you who come in. That is the final part of the jigsaw really, getting the people in.

- by Kate Jackson



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