For the first time in many decades this triumphant opening to the Donmar’s year-long West End residency at Wyndham’s generates the same buzz of high promise that once greeted Olivier’s Old Vic at the New Theatre season in the dark days of the war.
Chekhov called his first major play a Russian melodrama because the four acts each climax with a ‘punch on the nose’. But Tom Stoppard’s breezy new version, packed with witty exchanges and Gogolesque moments of bathos, reveals it as a tragicomedy for an ensemble of all the talents, led by Kenneth Branagh. He plays Ivanov, not as the usual villain of the piece, but as an essentially decent man, deep in debt and self-loathing, totally out of love with life - a complex, riveting performance reminding us that he is one of our greatest stage actors.
Five years earlier Ivanov had married Gina McKee’s wan Jewish girl, Anna, for her dowry, which didn’t materialise. Now dying of consumption, she is cared for by their overzealous young doctor (Tom Hiddleston) who vilifies Ivanov for his neglect.
Meanwhile Ivanov’s only emotional outlet is the adoration of a neighbour’s daughter Sasha, in Andrea Riseborough’s performance a girl with an Ibsenite romantic mission to save him from himself, leading to a farcical wedding day featuring an hilarious quartet of weeping celebrants.
This central plot and its ultimately tragic outcome is set against provincial evenings of cards, boredom, sparse hospitality and casual anti-Semitism, superbly directed by Michael Grandage, with notable character performances from Lorcan Cranitch as the life-enhancing Borkin, Malcolm Sinclair’s would-be lecher Shabelsky and Kevin R McNally as the hag-ridden landowner Lebedev.
Christopher Oram’s first act setting is a rural open space that would not have looked out of place on the Donmar stage, but with greater technical resources he goes on to fill the eye with telling architectural and atmospheric details that help complete an evening of outstanding theatrical achievement.