Chekov’s first staged play ‘Ivanov’ establishes all the familiar themes of his later works: the social melancholy of the Russian gentry, no longer sure of their position in society, the tedious boredom of day-to-day life and the rumours and gossip it inspires with its resultant loss of reputations and social standing, landowners facing debt and crippling mortgage payments, suddenly having to face the onerous responsibility of running their vast estates and not knowing how.
Ivanov is one such landowner sinking into an ever-deepening pit of despair and despondency. Confused and fearful of this sudden dark turn in his character he loses contact with his own liberal reforming zeal as self-hate and loathing grows like a terminal cancer within him.
Anna, his wife, was once so infatuated with Ivanov that she renounced her Jewish faith in order to marry him. She is now dying of tuberculosis and struggles and ultimately fails to understand her husband who now appears to be a complete stranger to her. Being abandoned by Ivanov night after night as he leaves home to spend his evenings at the Lebedev’s household, she finally begins to believe the rumours that he only married her for her dowry - a dowry she never received.
Other characters in this play are equally obsessive. The wealthy merchant widow Marfa Babakina longs to climb the social ladder and is willing to accept any insult and ridicule by the landed gentry in order to do so. The penny pinching Zinaida who worries that the candles will burn too long, that sugar is being wasted and reproves her servant for not offering the guests gooseberry jam to sweeten their tea. Then there is Sasha, who believes she can save Ivanov from his despair and is willing to dedicate her young life to this noble cause.
Owen Teale’s performance at times captures Ivanov’s dejection and gnawing self-hatred. However, I found his portrayal not volatile enough, and his expression more often one of dullness than of disconsolation. Robert Bowman seems over dramatic as the indignant doctor Yevgeny Lvov; his constant pacing and thrashing of arms looks impetuous and asinine.
Peter Wright gives an endearing performance as the hen-pecked alcoholic husband Pavel Lebedev, a person bewildered by the bazaar characters that inhabit his world and yet with paternal concern seeks to understand them.
However, it is the women whom perform best in this play. Juliet Aubrey, captures the inner-strength and self-assurance of Anna, which makes her rapid decline all the more distressful and enables you to see the wretchedness of Ivanov in his inability to warm to this effulgent woman. Sarah Field gives a delightful comic performance as the social climber Marfa Babakina as does Janet Whiteside as the ageing marriage broker Avdotya Nazarovna.
Like Teale’s portrayal of Ivanov this play simmers with potential but never quite manages to manifest it.
What other critics had to say.....
RACHEL HALLIBURTON for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Excellent cast,......an absorbing slice of pre-revolutionary Russia." THE TIMES says, "A play often patronised as a immature melodrama...... has the quirkiness, the subtlety, the unpredictable touches of human truth we associate with the great works that followed." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Wonderful and wonderfully acted production." ALEKS SIERZ for THE STAGE says, "Absorbing production is a superb piece of detailed and intelligent theatre."
External links to full reviews from newspapers