Laughing Out Loud in the Depths of Despair
Anton Chekhov's Ivanov
Belvoir St Theatre | Sydney
directed by Eamon Flack
The word is not explicitly mentioned in Eamon Flack’s adaptation, but his Ivanov shows all the signs of a modern man deeply depressed. He is unable to work, and everything seems to be a source of anxiety. As an educated man of some social standing, Nikolai Ivanov is expected to do better and everyone waits for him to get his act together. Nikolai himself blames no one else for his predicament, although it is clear that his disdain for things are beyond the personal.
We think about depression today increasingly as a medical condition pertaining to the individual. Circumstances and environment are diminished in importance, and one is required simply to find ways and means to weather the harsh realities surrounding themselves, or to accept the inherent deficiencies of one’s constitution. We no longer talk about the problems of society and their effect on persons. In Flack’s Ivanov, we are encouraged to examine the world in which Nikolai lives, and in our impatience for him to buck up, to also consider if there is anything indeed that would make his life truly worthwhile. Flack’s version is authentically pessimistic yet
full of comedic power. Its laughter comes from the sad and absurd elements of life, with
attention paid closely to the elements that control us. It discusses government and the economy, money and property, marriage and family, and the strain of masculinity, all troubling aspects that Nikolai has to deal with and that are perversely familiar to us.
The show’s tone is surprisingly farcical, with a unique sensibility that straddles both Australia and Russia. It is a make believe time and space, with language that freely traverses geography and genre, nonetheless it rings true at all points. The places might be strange and the characters equally foreign but we know the themes, and the play speaks sensitively and coherently through Chekhov’s now antiquated scenarios. The production is designed with intelligence, sophistication and flair. Michael Hankin’s set is immediately evocative, but also cheeky with symbols that add significantly to its overall and ubiquitous social commentary. As director, Flack’s ability to make every scene come to life ensures that the show is as emotionally engaging as it is thoughtful. Each character is exuberant and distinctive, their exchanges are frenzied with fire and chemistry. Their stage is a thoroughly playful one and we cannot resist pouring ourselves into their carousal, even if it is mad and miserable. Music and songs by Steve Toulmin and Francis Merson are party to much of that delirious energy.
It is a formidable cast with memorable performances from all nine actors. The title role by Ewen Leslie is suitably angsty and frustrating, and he rumbles with extravagant drama at each of his key revelatory moments. The actor is also able to tame his darkness for many of the show’s amusing sequences, for a finely balanced portrayal of a man disintegrating in the middle of a riotous comedy. Blazey Best (Marfa Babakina) and Helen Thomson (Zinaida Lebedev) play obnoxious women of means, taking the opportunity to present offensively loud personalities in brilliant displays of sublime but exaggerated humour (wonderfully supported by Mel Page’s outrageous costuming). John Bell (Matvei) and John Howard (Pavel Lebedev) turn up the charm with characters that are as flawed as they are endearing, transforming significant imperfections into figures of palpable humanity. The superb quality of acting in Ivanov is theatrical magic. Inspiring, uplifting and poignant, it takes Chekhov from history to tangible, and in this rare episode, provides an interpretation that exceeds our expectations of the master’s bequeathed words.
Chekhov had a definite interest in firearms and suicide. In any reflection of life, its opposite will always be implicated. In thinking about death, especially suicide, we are made to consider the decisions to remain alive. If that discovery of life’s meaning is elusive, then the mystery of how we stop from killing ourselves becomes potent. Nikolai reads a lot, and the more that he knows, the closer his gun is held. In Ivanov‘s world, ignorance is bliss, and pessimism struggles to find relief. Fortunately, hope is independent of reason, and we persist albeit devoid of certainty and replete with insecurity.
photo | ©Brett Boardman