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KATONA JOZSEF THEATRE and the SYDNEY FESTIVAL present IVANOV by Anton Chekhov at the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

IVANOV (1887) was written before the famous four great plays (The Seagull; Uncle Vanya; Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard) that are a regular part of the International repertory. Three earlier plays exist: Platanov; The Wood Demon and then Ivanov. Ivanov is generally regarded as a play that was a part of the apprenticeship of the great writer, Chekhov. But Mr David Hare in his introduction to his translation / adaptation (1997 for the Almeida Theatre) suggests “that we are overlooking something really valuable if we regard the brilliant sport, the rogue play, IVANOV, simply as a staging-post of a writer on his way to great things.” The later plays are a re-action against the commercial theatre writing of the time and the structure of the well prepared melodrama. Chekhov in the case of IVANOV, Hare goes on to say, “wrote one exceptionally good melodrama.”

“Originally drafted in only two weeks the play uses monologue and direct address. It features a hero who makes conspicuously long speeches. It satirizes Russian society in much broader strokes than those Chekhov later favoured. But what entitles us to think these techniques are not deliberate, and, in their way, just as skilfully deployed as the more muted strategies Chekhov later adopted? Unless we can see that Ivanov is not a lesser play but simply “different” to the rest of his work, then we will miss the versatility of a playwright who can still surprise us by the variety of his styles, and, what’s more, one whose vigour and directness in this extraordinary outing also cast light on the plays which follow.”

Chekhov had written farcical / comic sketches and short plays for the theatre: eg The Bear; The Proposal; The Wedding, being examples of some of the best known. The humour and exaggerated behaviour of the characters in these plays show us this robust Chekhov. In the Ivanov text we see him use quite “orthodox melodramatic conventions – each act climaxes with what he called ‘a punch on the nose’ – to tackle hotly contemporary themes (anti-Semitism) and ‘dramatizing a conflict inside himself in a way which is both deeply felt and funny.’ The dominating theme is honesty…. The play’s defining argument is between a young doctor (Lvov) who thinks that honesty is to do with blurting out offensive truths, and the more sensitive central character (Ivanov) who insists, with a wisdom which is notably pre-Freudian, that no one can acquire honesty unless they also have self-knowledge to examine their own motives…. Chekhov leaves us to work out for ourselves whether honesty consists in judging others, or in refusing to judge them.” (In a more dramatic form Ibsen investigates this dilemma in the positions of Gregers and Ekdal in THE WILD DUCK 1884.)

The Katona Josef Theatre is Hungary’s best known theatre company – a public theatre, supported mainly by the City of Budapest The director, Tamas Ascher, “has uprooted the play from its usual setting amongst the fading Russian bourgeoisie, and planted it firmly within Hungary’s ascendant peasant classes of the 1960’s” The setting (Zsolt Khell) looks like a decaying communal building, the central image is that of the communal hall: decaying, rundown, stacked with cheap, pragmatically strong furniture and lit with the cold white fierceness of naked fluorescent light. The roof leaks and there is a shallow pool of water on the floor. Tamas describes the stage setting as “a perfect description of the ‘inner’ setting, Ivanov’s soul. Ivanov is in a perspectiveless, depressive situation.” The design works smoothly for the various acts, with a simple re-arrangement of the furniture and the simple addition of decoration. (Birthday streamers etc). Lighting by Tamas Banyai. The clothing is 60’s but useful and clear in its intention and observational satiric wit. The music atmospheric and at other times sometimes subliminally effective. (Marton Kovacs.)

The acting by the company is surprisingly “throw away” in its spontaneity. Refreshing in its approach. It is neither ponderous nor reverential. When it is good it appears effortless, this is especially so in the more dramatic confrontations of the inhabitants of the play. However, I felt the comedy, especially in the second act, was contrived and too studied for me to participate unselfconsciously with the company. The ensemble are masterfully in sympathy with each other, but on the afternoon I attended, the work was a little too well oiled, the inner life of the characters seemed to be absent. The act two gathering was “milked” for the comedy and did not have the organic flow of “the hilarity of the observed dreary Soviet provincialism of 1960’s Hungary.” It tended to give the impression of having been played too many times before. There was no real concentrated internal imaginative life, just old externalisations of hollow comedy. False notes, such as the final confrontation between the father Lebedhev (Zoltan Bezeredi) and the daughter Sasha (Adel Jordan), when they finally argued under the table, stretched the credulity of the truthfulness of the situation and lifted the scene into a stratosphere of actors going just too far in a rehearsal choice. It had no logical attachment to the truth of the circumstances that we were witnessing that afternoon, other than the possibility of eliciting laughter from the audience at its extreme visual comic absurdity. Time and again the unattached “gags” of the stage-business distracted from a veracity. The interval seemed to have settled the company, for the second half was a far more rewarding experience.

On the other hand I loved the conception of this production as an extension and usage of the famous “vaudeville” sketches style of early Chekhov and was fully prepared to run with it as a way of doing this famously “difficult” play. It certainly, as Mr Hare suggests, illuminates the “farcical”, possibilities of the often neglected satire and humour of THE SEAGULL and THE CHERRY ORCHARD. The act three party of The Cherry Orchard scene suddenly opened up to me in a way that I desire to see it tried: Chekhov said his plays were comedies and this work by the Katona Jozef Theatre showed me a glimmer of how it might be done. It is the incredible balancing act of the full commitment to both the tragedy and the comedy in these works that require a vision and bravery from the usual approach to the plays, that is rare. Maybe this production once had it but on Monday it erred into a lack of comic truthfulness; “the importance of being earnest” with the comedy was absent. (Some of the company looked as if they may have had too much Sydney sun. Sunstroke. Perhaps!!) The balance of the comedy observation with the knowledge of the tragedy was askew. The drama won my belief unequivocally.The comedy grew to depress me for its contrivance in the playing.

I admired the work of Erno Feteke as Ivanov very much. The long monologue was wonderfully solved and played. The wonderful scene between Anna Petrovna (IIdiko Toth ) and Ivanov was thrilling in the dimensions and passions and subtleties. Ervin Nagy (Borkin), physically free and clear; Gabor Mate (Shabelsky) tenderly moving and pathetic; Zoltan Rajkai (Lvov), although I felt the centrality of his balance to the core of the argument of the play had been marginalised in this production, was full of human integrity and fraility. His passionate “blindness”, too sad to contemplate in a contemporary world of fundamentalists at war with each other.

Ivanov is now on my list of interest. Prior to this I had tended to dismiss it as a young writer’s failure, now it appears a task worth solving. It appears as a challenge worth investigating. This reveals the strength of this wonderful Festival Production.


1 replies to “Ivanov”

  1. Kevin,

    I believe I caught the final performance of this season and feel that you may have had the unfortunate impact of ‘the Monday show’. WHich doesn’t excuse it.

    Saturday night was quite marvellous – although I would tend to agree with you about the juice having been squeezed out of the ‘let’s hide under the table gag’ and perhaps Ervin Nagy (Borkin) was a little pushed too in his comic work – but I still enjoyed his work and loved the show.

    It’s been a pretty good theatre festival for me. After last nights “Yalta game” there is only “Afterplay” left…so sad.

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