Tuesday, July 29, 2008

See to believe

I just read Anton Chekhov's play Ivanov, more than partly because Kenneth Branagh will be playing the title role at the Donmar Warehouse this fall (and then directing Jude Law as Hamlet later in the season; I can hear the critics sharpening their knives now, though they mostly respect Branagh's theatrical skills). I... couldn't get into it. Or out of it. A very odd play about a rather despicable central character with an ailing Jewish wife and failing estate he ignores, and an over-earnest doctor and other characters of varying degrees of virtue, trying to make him wake up again. At the end, after his wife dies and a year passes between acts 3 and 4, it's his wedding day as he is going to marry the neighbor's beautiful young daughter. And he apparently can't bring himself to wreck her life when his is so obviously a wreck already, so he shoots himself. Curtain.

I was driven to read the preface of the edition I was reading, and the author suggests the obvious, that Ivanov, for all his awfulness, is the hero, and the doctor, Lvov, the one whose steps to hell are paved with good intentions. Such an anti-hero is perfect for Branagh, who seems drawn to those lately; he had quite a triumph onstage a few years ago as Edmond in David Mamet's play of the same name. Rumor was that he was working up to Macbeth, but financing has fallen through (and given the level of success of As You Like It, I'm not surprised).

Chekhov is one of those 'great' playwrights who I just can't get into on the very talky page. I really need to see something of his staged sometime, or at least rent a video. Never had this problem with Shakespeare, but it does happen sometimes with plays. Pinter's not that easy to read. Some of Stoppard just looks insane--and it's not that it doesn't also sound insane when you see it, but that the staging can draw it together in interesting ways.

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