Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
Opened 16 September, 2002

The coup is a simple one. Semi-opaque screens part to reveal not only the drawing-room set but, more strikingly, the opposite bank of spectators. Until things start happening as much as things ever do in Chekhov we regard ourselves more than the dour, bearded man trying to read on stage. Of course, one of the effects of staging a play in traverse like this is to confront an audience with our own collective responses. This is where Katie Mitchell's production of Ivanov at the Cottesloe pays off in her characteristic understated style. The staging doesn't draw us into the action, but rather vice versa: these characters are commenting upon us.

For Ivanov (presented in David Harrower's similarly unshowy new translation) here finds a new power and magnetism. True, even though Chekhov continued to revise the text long after its premiere (this version uses the starker 1889 ending), it lacks the polish of his major works. It pitches itself more directly, with clearer-cut character types, rather than encouraging us as in those later plays to distribute our sympathies and identifications around the cast of characters.

It's the other side of the Chekhovian equation that emerges, the side that leads us to repudiate pretty much everyone. Society here, both in general and in particular figures, is not merely parochial and sterile, but actively grasping and malicious. Gillian Hanna's snobbish, moneylending neighbour and Philip Voss's aristocratically trollish, impecunious, ingrate Count are only the most conspicuous examples of a rottenness that runs through the fibre of this world. In another play, Robert Bowman's doctor would be defined by his conscientiousness and his half-denied love for Ivanov's tubercular wife; here, his mistaken moralising turns him into a sanctimonious prig.

But it is in the failed landowner and failed husband of Ivanov himself that the achievement is focused. Mitchell, Harrower and actor Owen Teale have created an utterly contemporary depressive protagonist. We understand instinctively and empathically the combination of good intentions and lack of dynamism which betrays the promise he once embodied, and the self-loathing which drives him to alienate all around him in order to justify his low opinion of himself. This Ivanov does not bear the usual comparisons with Prince Hamlet. No mixture of dynamic railing and profound musing here: when he analyses himself in the third act, he does so with a detached, fatalistic half-curiosity. He is not hero, anti-hero or raging malcontent, but a modern example of what a friend of mine (speaking of me) once memorably described as a "misery snob".

All of which makes the evening sound thoroughly unpleasant and probably dull into the bargain. It is not. Mitchell, as ever, draws out the dramatic heft from a superficially minimalist approach on a sepia-lit stage. Chekhov, so unusually harsh toward his characters here, is generous to his audience in putting us to our purgation. It has the metallic yet beneficial tang of unsweetened medicine, and is peculiarly compelling.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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