An honest man. Ivanov. Donmar Westend. Wyndhams Theatre. 29 November 2009.

Since my formative years I have enjoyed watching Kenneth Brannagh. Now some individuals find his performances ‘too popularist’. I have often found this a somewhat strange attitude toward acting; surely it’s not meant to be for a select audience? Or maybe it is and I have been missing the point for a long time and should confine myself to watching TV instead.

Not likely.

So with an already high opinion of whom I shall affectionately moniker Mr B, I bought tickets for Ivanov. This did surprise me as I am not particularly a Chekhov fan. My limited knowledge has found Chekhov plays to be…well…dull. Sorry. I can think of no other word for it.

So on attending the Wyndhams theatre, a fine old Edwardian beast with lashings of gold leaf and podgy cherubs adorning the available space, I was in an equitable state, looking forward to a performance, not expecting an enjoyable play.

As the curtain went up, a mournful violin’s plaintive song filled the space, and despite having been no nearer to Russia than Norwich I was transported to images of the Steppes and long winter nights. Ivanov (played by Brannagh) had his back to us and was lit with late afternoon gold. In his hand he crumbled an ear of flaky corn, and as he slowly turned to the audience he heaved a sigh and his eyes filled with tears, almost imperceptible, but there nonetheless. This set the tone for what was one of the best performances I have ever had the privilege of seeing.

Not that dear old Mr B was alone in being superb. A personal favourite (and here I reminisce fondly to memories of Drake Carne in Poldark: NB for those stateside a classic 70’s costume drama) Kevin McNally was excellent as the aging and occasionally half-cut Pavel Lebedez. Tom Hiddleston gave a performance that was full of latent energy, a man trying to keep hold of his emotions. He was the Dr, proud of his honesty and ability to tell it like it is, that sadly ends up becoming the proverbial bad penny. Silvestre La Touzel as the matriarchal Zinaida was an entertaining highpoint and Gina McKee was superb as the consumptive wife Anna Petrovna devastated by the inexplicable loss of her husband’s love.

It was an interesting play, much funnier than I expected with some extremely comical moments, particularly the horribly dull evening party (decidedly and sadly familiar) and the vodka fueled machinations in the study (sadly not so familiar). What was particular interesting was that in many ways Ivanov is not a particularly sympathetic protagonist. Suffering from what we would probably now call a mid-life crisis Ivanov falls out of love with his faithful and long-suffering wife, becomes infatuated with an 18 year old girl and makes somewhat idiotic decisions about his finances. That being said, the strength of the production meant that ultimately we felt sympathy on a basic human level for this individual’s despair.

It was a magnificent ensemble piece but for me there were two moments that really stood out, that have seared themselves into my consciousness somewhere. Perhaps it’s because they resonated so personally with me, maybe it’s just because these were exquisite moments of drama, probably a combination of both. At the end of Act 2 Lebedev (Played by McNally) offers his old friend Ivanov money to pay back to his wife in order to stop her nagging. In the script this exchange reads as ‘he offers money. Ivanov looks at him’. In performance there was a painfully long pause as Ivanov gradually crumpled into soundless sobs, bent over in a painful despair. After his friend leaves the room he rages, throwing a chair then descending again into fitful tears. It was an exceptionally moving scene and it was brought to mind at the end of the play when Ivanov takes himself off quietly and a gun shot rings out. I think this was one of the few plays I have seen where quiet tears were still rolling during the curtain call.

Bravos were hallooed with gusto.


Tom Hiddleston is a young actor to watch. I saw him turn in a magnificent performance as Posthumus AND Cloten in Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline. So go see him whenever you get a chance, and let me live vicariously through you.

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