Sunday, September 27, 2015

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov adapted by Eamon Flack

Image by Julian Meagher
Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, adapted and directed by Eamon Flack. Presented by Belvoir at Belvoir St Theatre Upstairs, Sydney, September 23 – November 1, 2015.

Set designer Michael Hankin; Costume designer Mel Page; Lighting designer Verity Hampson; Composer and Sound designer Steve Toulmin; Song translation Francis Merson.


Borkin – Fayssal Bazzi; Shabelsky – John Bell; Babakina – Blazey Best;
Sasha – Airlie Dodds; Gabriella – Mel Dyer; Lebedev – John Howard;
Ivanov – Ewen Leslie; Anna – Zahra Newman; Lvov – Yalin Ozucelik;
Zinaida – Helen Thomson.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 26

To Stanislavski, or not to Stanislavski?  That was the question.  This is not an academic exercise.  Eamon Flack did it both ways, and it works wonderfully well.

L to R: John Howard, Airlie Dodds, Blazey Best, Ewen Leslie, Helen Thomson, John Bell
Photos by Brett Boardman

Wikipedia records:

"Ivanov (Russian: Иванов: драма в четырёх действиях (Ivanov: drama in four acts)) is a four-act drama by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.

"Ivanov was first performed in 1887, when Fiodor Korsh, owner of the Korsh Theatre in Moscow, commissioned Chekhov to write a comedy. Chekhov, however, responded with a four-act drama, which he wrote in ten days. Despite the success of its first performance, the production disgusted Chekhov himself. In a letter to his brother, he wrote that he "did not recognise his first remarks as my own" and that the actors "do not know their parts and talk nonsense". Irritated by this failure, Chekhov made alterations to the play. Consequently the final version is different from that first showing. After this re-write, it was accepted to be performed in St. Petersburg in 1889. Chekhov's re-write was a success and offered a foretaste for the style and themes of his subsequent masterpieces."

J.L.Styan in Modern drama in theory and practice 1 – Realism and Naturalism notes:
"The Moscow Art Theatre went on to produce the last plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), each with a structure more fragile than that of The Seagull with its comparatively conventional plotting.  These were Chekhov’s masterpieces, Uncle Vanya (1899), Three Sisters (1901) and The Cherry Orchard (1904).  Whereas Stanislavsky largely developed his thinking about the art of the theatre after Chekhov’s death, it was during the production of these plays that Chekhov increased his understanding of stage realism.  He learned by experience and largely taught himself."

Ewen Leslie as Ivanov, Zahra Newman as his wife Anna

Airlie Dodds as Sasha

 On the one hand, Flack has made the three central characters – Ivanov, his dying wife Anna and his almost wife Sasha – as the only ones who need a serious dose of Stanislavski.  We see how well Ewen Leslie and Zahra Newman achieve realism, especially in their last moment together at the end of Act 2.  We are already aware of Airlie Dodds as her Sasha sees through her crass commercial parents, but in her speech Active love is better... in Act 3 and then her final speech when she tells the doctor Lvov exactly what she thinks of him and takes control of the situation ...It’s a beautiful day, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and I’m getting married or else... we see characterisation with clear intention and motivation as Stanislavski hoped for.

Zahra Newman as Anna, Ewen Leslie as Ivanov

Except that Ivanov is really at the end of his mental tether.  I can’t reveal the ending, especially since Chekhov, according to Flack’s Program Notes, couldn’t make up his mind on that point anyway, but I can say that by that stage I really was beginning to worry about Ewen Leslie’s state of mind.  If he was using Stanislavski’s original Method, or worse Lee Strasberg’s version (the American Method), his creation of Ivanov’s  absolutely frantic incapacity to cope might have left him in danger of becoming a Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Marlon Brando.

On the other hand, fortunately, Flack has had the good fortune to be brought up on later theatre developments, including Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, and in Sydney the Hayes Gordon technique (a practical Stanislavski in his Acting and Performing) and a large dose of the Marvellous Melbourne effect.  So these three characters are kept in check by all the others who could easily have come on board direct from The Legend of King O’Malley (by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy).  The whole group singing Advance Australia Fair in Russian language and musical style has to be the highlight of absurdity which brings the house down.  Literally in Ivanov’s mind as his country estate falls apart, in a set which includes very dodgy French doors, obviously ‘found objects’ picked up at a recycling facility.

Fayssal Bazzi as Borkin

John Bell as Shabelsky

John Howard as Lebedev, Airlie Dodds as his daughter Sasha

Mel Dyer as Gabriella (Lebedev's servant)

So Eamon Flack, with a team of the usual excellent suspects, has created a comedy-drama surely beyond anything Chekhov could have imagined.  But to the extent that Chekhov was anything like his Ivanov, always on the verge of existential self-destruction, he would have been saved from suicide if he could have known that his first complete play had been such a success 118 years later.

Chekhov actually died of tuberculosis, in a similar situation to Anna in this play, whose fate is modernised and described by Dr Lvov as a cancer which has metastisised.  Ivanov might be seen as a great memorial to add to Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya in 2010 and this year’s Platanov, an adaptation by Andrew Upton of Chekhov’s even earlier attempt at exploding the myth of upper-class social security in Russia.

Helen Thomson as Lebedev's wife Zinaida
Family photos: Lebedev, Sasha, Zinaida

Blazey Best as Babakina, Ewen Leslie as Ivanov, Helen Thomson as Zinaida

And, now to end, on an economically sound note, entirely in tune with the busting-out all-over Blazey Best’s piggery-owning Babakina.  Paul Keating has a lot to answer for, I guess, as she bemoans to her best friend, Sasha’s mother  (Helen Thomson’s flower-rearranging Zinaida), Labour’s expensive, infrastructure costs go up and up ... it’s a fine line between growth and inflation ... There’s just no certainty any more ... I don’t want management costs, I’m thoroughly sick of innovation.  Efficiency dividends.  How efficient finally is a pig?....  Maybe Rod Sims and his Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will be pleased to note the proper degree of competition without graft and corruption between these two producers of Anton Chekov plays.

Neither can be said to dominate the market, and quality is clearly on the rise.

And the ACCC may also like to suggest to the new Prime Minister that competition in the theatre market generally could be improved by returning $105 million to Rupert Myer AO at the Australia Council and letting that independent arms-length body also manage the international market in conjunction with the Department of Foreign affairs and Trade.

But maybe that's just me, wanting the ways of the old days never to change.  Sigh....

Ewen Leslie as Ivanov, Airlie Dodds as Sasha