Russian literature of the 1800s is so fertile with feeling and turmoil that in contemporary re-tellings it can become ponderous and heavy-handed. It requires a firm hand to force it into submission and sense. Belvoir St. Theatre's newly-appointed Artistic Director Eamon Flack's radical adaptation of Anton Chekhov's 19th Century play Ivanov is a strange combination of Russian melancholy and modern satirical farce.
The setting remains Russia, but the somewhat mismatched chronological details - a white ABBA-style jumpsuit, garish Adidas tracksuits and a portrait of Vladimir Putin on the wall - seem to make this a parody of what we tend to think of contemporary Russia. This adaptation takes the sparkling satirical wit of Chekhov's play (first performed in 1887) and broadens it. The cast sink their teeth into this endeavour with aplomb, but it can leave the audience with a sense of emotional whiplash.
Nikolai Ivanov is the central character of the play. He is skint, living on a farm that is slowly falling into ruins with his cancer-stricken wife Anna, his kind-hearted but cynical uncle Shabelsky and his scheming cousin Mikhael Borkin. Ivanov owes the neighbours the Lebedevs fifteen thousand roubles (plus interest), but instead of facing any of his problems head-on, the intellectual and former teacher and novelist Ivanov would rather bury his head in a book. He also appears to be losing his mind.
What this version of Ivanov does exceptionally well is explore the interplay between characters. Each actor immediately inhabits their character and you get a sense of them before they even open their mouths. Zahra Newman is particularly moving as the gentle but firm Anna, and Yalin Ozucelik as Doctor Lvov deftly strikes a balance between being a beleagured buffoon and an impassioned moralist. John Howard also lives up to his reputation as a fine actor, providing comic relief as the put-upon Lebedev patriarch, but never descending into cliche.
That's the kind of the balance that the play as a whole could do with, but often lacks. The second act, which opens with a birthday party for the teenage Sasha Lebedov could be a scene straight out of Kath & Kim, with a tantalising tackiness to the gossip between Sasha's mother Zinaida and the widow Marfa Babakina. As Zinaida and Marfa respectively, Helen Thompson and Blazey Best do a wonderful job and are very engaging, but the play seems to pull too far in that direction, and loses focus on its main themes.
For the most part, though, the power of the original play shines through, and it is in fact very moving. When the play digs deep into its titular character, the tortured Ivanov appears as a polarising figure - he is a brute with a bad temper, but he is also an intelligent and kind man who has lost his way. In the challenging lead role, Ewan Leslie walks that line with a great amount of nuance.
A piece of theatre this old has to do something special, and this version does, even if the pay off is not always in keeping with the invention and imagination that went into it. By peppering the performance with a couple of fantastic musical numbers (which happen to be famous pop songs sung in Russian), as well as some gorgeous set design and lighting, the momentum is kept up and it feels much shorter than its two hour and forty minute running time.
Belvoir's production of Ivanov is an intriguing experiment, even if this louder and bolder take on Chekhov won't be for everyone. It's wonderfully cathartic to laugh and cry during the one performance, but it would have been more successful if those opposing poles could be brought a bit closer together to make for a more cohesive theatre experience.
Ivanov is on now at Belvoir St. Theatre. Check out the Sydney Scoop calendar to find performance times and where to buy tickets. Production photos by Brett Boardman.