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Review Round-up: Branagh’s Ivanov Stuns Critics

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The inaugural production of the Donmar’s West End season, Ivanov, opened last night (17 September 2008, previews from 12 September)at Wyndham’s Theatre, with the stellar cast supported by an all-star audience including Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike (See Today’s 1st Night Photos).

Ivanov was Chekhov’s first play, written when he was 27, and has been newly translated by Tom Stoppard. Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage directs Kenneth Branagh in the title role, and he is joined by Andrea Riseborough as Sasha and Gina McKee as Anna Petrovna (See News, 20 Jun 2008). The all-star ensemble also features: Kevin R McNally, Malcolm Sinclair, Tom Hiddleston, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Lucy Briers and Lorcan Cranitch.

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.

Overnight critics went wild for the production, many proclaiming Branagh to be “at his best” in the title role. A raft of five-star reviews adorned this morning’s papers, getting the Donmar West End season off to a “flying start”. Grandage’s production was variously deemed “spot-on”, “richly intelligent”, “wondrous” and “just the West End ticket”, aided by Christopher Oram’s earthy design, Adam Cork’s “terrific” score and Paule Constable’s “exquisite” lighting. Amongst the supporting cast, Tom Hiddleston’s “priggish” doctor, Andrea Riseborough’s “sexily impetuous” Sasha and Gina Mckee’s “beautiful” portrayal of Ivanov’s Jewish wife Anna were highly praised, but there were no weak links amongst the ensemble. All round then, it appears that Ivanov is the new “must see” in the West End.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “Now the brutish comedy and callowness of Chekhov’s first play – overlooked by the playwright’s best English translator, Michael Frayn – makes it seem just the West End ticket. And the Donmar season at Wyndham’s is off to a flying start with Michael Grandage’s scorching production, Kenneth Branagh’s meticulous and moving performance as the gentleman farmer swimming in debts and despair, and Tom Stoppard’s clinical, idiomatic new version. I’ve rarely felt heat like it in the theatre, even without the air-conditioning … Branagh has never been better, making no bones about Ivanov’s horrible anti-semitism and the utter futility of his situation. Unlike Gielgud, of course, he doesn’t ask you to like him for a moment. The play hurtles by, hitting its four curtain climaxes with an almost shocking intensity. What was that about not too much serious drama going on in the West End?”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (five stars) – “ The cheering news is that Tom Stoppard\'s new version of Chekhov\'s early play, directed by Michael Grandage and starring Kenneth Branagh, is everything one could hope for: not just another Chekhov revival but a richly intelligent rethink of a play that\'s actually had six major outings in the last 43 years … What Grandage\'s production brilliantly provides is the dual perspective that was to become Chekhov\'s trademark: above all, it reminds us that it is perfectly possible, as Uncle Vanya later proved, to be ridiculous and tragic at the same time. Branagh\'s Ivanov is alert to his own absurdity, at one point telling Sasha he\'s turned into ‘a hangdog parody of a literary cliche, the superfluous man’ … Andrea Riseborough as Sasha is both sexily impetuous and a collector of doomed souls. Malcolm Sinclair shows Ivanov\'s uncle to be a posturing cynic and a lonely widower. And Tom Hiddleston as the accusatory doctor emerges as a well-intentioned prig. But everything about this production is first-rate, from the mossy decay surrounding Ivanov\'s estate in Christopher Oram\'s design to the melancholy, tolling bells in Adam Cork\'s sound design.”
    • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Not for many years has there been a more exciting invasion of London\'s commercial theatre world than the one launched last night in triumph by Michael Grandage … This Ivanov is coloured with the elements of black comedy, glancing satire and tragedy. Thanks to the director and to the vivid eloquence of Tom Stoppard\'s new version, which is marred by occasional, glaring modernities, a strong impression is conveyed of provincial Russia where boredom, malice, sadness and selfish egocentricity is soothed by alcohol and almost Beckettian parties. Notes of anti-semitism disquietingly resound as well. Christopher Oram\'s design brilliantly sets the stridently sombre mood, shrouding the view of Ivanov\'s estate in mist and nothing but bare earth … The starrily talented Branagh strikes me as fundamentally miscast. His Ivanov remains strangely phlegmatic, morosely grounded and introverted, while Ivanov should forever jangle with nerves and shimmer with emotion … The production and ensemble acting more than the star make the night so memorable.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Compared with Chekhov\'s later plays the writing is sometimes crude. There is more than a touch of melodrama about the dramatic curtain lines, a vaudevillian quality to the comedy that includes one of the funniest portrayals of an all-male booze-up I\'ve seen on stage … Kenneth Branagh is in magnificent form as Ivanov, combining the heartache of a down-at-heel Hamlet with the vituperative, self-lacerating rage of Osborne\'s Jimmy Porter. His cruelty, his weariness and his self-disgust are all unsparingly caught and yet Branagh also suggests the blighted beauty in the character that makes two women love him. Grandage\'s production, with atmospheric designs by Christopher Oram and a terrific score by Adam Cork, offers a feast of superb supporting performances. Malcolm Sinclair is in his element as a deeply misanthropic old aristocrat without a kind word for anyone, least of all himself, as he cynically resolves to marry for money. Tom Hiddleston exudes a priggish self-righteousness as the doctor who likes nothing better than telling Ivanov just how badly he is behaving; Kevin R McNally makes a superbly engaging and kind-hearted old soak, and Gina McKee and Andrea Riseborough are both deeply poignant as the unhappy women in Ivanov\'s life.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (five stars) – “In preparing for the production, Branagh seems to have relaxed his spirit around every corner of the role before deciding where to screw up the intensity. One side of his Ivanov watches his own decline with appalled scientific curiosity; another chokes with hectic sobs as though in losing his earlier better self he were like a child suddenly bereaved of its parent … This is great acting, no question. He\'s beyond praise in the way this Ivanov responds to his wife\'s righteous doctor, whose priggish self-regard comes through with just the right insidious force in Tom Hiddleston\'s finely tuned portrayal … Everything is spot-on. Paule Constable\'s exquisite lighting that presents the first act\'s evening as a honeyed haze and Ivanov\'s den as a 19th-century French painting illuminated from above through grimy, leaf-clogged skylight. There\'s Grandage\'s wondrous instinct for pace and dynamics that here reveal the play to be like a parody of one of Dostoevsky\'s black, mood-swing farces (though without the Christian preoccupations). On more than one count, then, a must-see.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

      ** DON’T MISS our Whatsonstage.com Outing to IVANOV on 7 October 2008 - including a FREE programme & EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A – all for £35! – we’ve now secured EXTRA tickets for this previously sold-out event! - click here to book now! **

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