Anton Chekhov
Theatre of Nations
Barbican Theatre

Theatre of Nations, Ivanov, ensemble Credit: Sergey Petrov
Theatre of Nations, Ivanov, Ivanov (Evgeny Mironov) and Sasha (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) Credit: Sergey Petrov
Theatre of Nations, Ivanov, Anna/Sarah (Chulpan Khamatova) and Lvov (Dmitry Serdyuk) Credit: Sergey Petrov
Theatre of Nations, Ivanov, Lebedev (Igor Gordin), Lebedeva (Natalya Pavlenkova) and Sasha (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) Credit: Sergey Petrov
Theatre of Nations, Ivanov, Ivanov (Evgeny Mironov) and Sasha (Elizaveta Boyarskaya), Credit: Sergey Petrov
Theatre of Nations, Ivanov, Ivanov (Evgeny Mironov) and Sasha (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) Credit: Sergey Petrov

I spoke too soon—the ‘take a rest from technology’ fell on dead ears tonight for Ivanov—maybe it’s the subject matter. Shukshin’s Stories a few nights ago were warm and embracing; a modern Ivanov, taken at a deadening pace, is parody and pastiche. The young reporter from TASS next to me is on his phone throughout the evening, even during the crazy denouement in the waiting room of the marriage registry office. Multitasking he may be, but he disagrees with me over Timofey Kulyabin’s production: he likes the update, whilst I am ambivalent.

Commissioned by Fyodor Korsh to write a comedy, Chekhov wrote a drama in four acts. And to my mind this has created the ambivalence I am sensing in this production and in my response to it. How to bestride the heartbreak and the social satire? It is not a tragi-comedy but more of a black farce. Ivanov is not a sympathetic personality. Was Chekhov in a sour mood when he wrote it? Did he care for any of the characters? First performed in 1887 (and subsequently in 1889 in St Petersburg in an improved version, Chekhov being unhappy with his first attempt) at the Korsh theatre in Moscow, which now houses the Theatre of Nations, a continuity of sorts.

Theatre of Nations takes a broad physical comedy approach, more Gogol than Chekhov—why are you laughing, you’re laughing at yourselves… The Russians in the audience are seeing a different play, picking up on props signifiers in the cluttered sets that are not immediately obvious to an English audience. The surtitles are slightly out of synch, too. What does the portrait of the big German Shepherd dog, painted from life he says, in Ivanov’s office signify? Is it an in-joke?

Office worker Ivanov (Evgeny Mironov) is up to his neck in debt to the nouveau riche Lebedevs and going through a midlife crisis (his age upgraded to forty, not the original 35) by falling in love with their young daughter Sasha. His wife Anna (Chulpan Khamatova in bald cap), the former Jewish Sarah, disinherited by her wealthy parents for marrying out, has cancer (not TB as in the original) and not long to live. The anti-Semitism still grates: “aren’t there enough Russian girls to marry”... Her doctor, Lvov (Dmitry Serduk), a judgemental young man, is obviously in love with her. All the others despise and ignore his advice. Ivanov can’t afford to send her abroad for treatment in any case even if he cared or wanted to.

His uncle Count Shabelsky (Viktor Verzhbitsky) lives with them in the small flat with balcony for private conversations (asides at one side as it were—too much of the action and dialogues seem to take place in corners) and is crawling up the wall with boredom. Borkin (Alexander Novin a wildfire of a man) a distant relative, with all sorts of moneymaking schemes, has plans to marry him to rich widow Babakina (Marianna Shults). Set in the present day, the programme tells us, yet it has a seventies / eighties feel to it, it’s Central Russia not the metropolis after all. It’s all about money and people on the make. Are there counts in modern day Russia now? Otherwise how can Borkin tempt the rich widow with a title?

Anomalies aside, Sasha’s second act birthday party, in the wood-panelled dacha-look home of the Lebedevs, with its vile gossip, heavy drinking, dancing, sparklers, and kitschy gifts, is the most fun. Olga Lapshina gives a wonderful comic performance as family guest Avdotia Nazarova (she sings well, too, a song for Sasha, "Alexandra", from the popular 1980 film Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears), and in the final act almost steals the scene in the tiny role of registrar at ZAGS (Civil Registry Office). Ivanov and long-suffering Sasha (Elizaveta Boyarskaya) are third in the queue.

Now when it comes to drink, Pavel Lebedev (Pavel Gordin), the hen-pecked husband of Zinaida (Natalya Pavlenkova), who holds the purse strings, is a star. What a terrific performance. In fact, all the actors are excellent, not a dud amongst them, it is a fine ensemble, a Rolls Royce of an ensemble, but too much business slows down the tempo, and lengthy scene changes sap away any tension.

This modern-day version with its crude mockery of coarse contemporary mores has lost some of Chekhov’s emotional poetry. Ivanov’s melodramatic surprise suicide by shooting is converted into an ambiguous end. Slumped in a seat with his back to us, all the others have rushed off for some reason, it seems he has expired. From what—self-hate, anxiety, heart attack, too much drink? Maybe I missed it. All I see is a glass shattering. Did he shoot discreetly? How out of character.

There is some self-centred soul searching, Anna dies, Ivanov is cruel to her, and not too kind to Sasha, but he is no Hamlet, nor a nineteenth century superfluous man. In this account, in Mironov’s screen acting style, he comes across as an unappealing character, a bit hysterical (gurning, and smashing plates), not just a lost cause, but rather spineless. At times Mironov reminds me of Michael Crawford in the silly seventies comedy Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Tricky to get that balance right between melancholic introspection and silly comedy (what fools we mortals be)…

An early play of Chekhov’s—before the big four—Ivanov has attracted Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes and most recently the 2016 David Hare adaptation at Chichester. This Theatre of Nations treatment was also created in 2016. What interesting cross-cultural pairing those two would make.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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