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Ivanov review (Belvoir, Sydney)

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Often when you’ve just seen a decent adaptation of a play by Chekhov or one of his near-contemporaries you might say to a fellow audience member: “Wow, they really captured the comedy/tragedy/psychological reality/societal structure/community dynamic (etc)”. But Eamon Flack’s new adaptation of Ivanov is such a rich, broad and full-blooded piece of theatre that it’s impossible to put your finger on just one strength.

Even by Chekhov’s standards, Ivanov is a bleak and despairing work. From the beginning to the end, there is no hope for any of these characters; particularly the tragic titular antihero whose existential crisis can only lead to oblivion. But the world in which he is trying to exist — in Flack’s version, contemporary Russia with some striking similarities to contemporary Australia — is deliciously funny in its hopelessness.

Ivanov (Ewen Leslie) is living on an inherited, dilapidated country estate (realised smartly in Michael Hankin’s monochrome set) which is doomed to never make money. He’s in debt to his wealthy neighbours and friends, the Lebedevs (John Howard and Helen Thomson) with no clear way out and no motivation to find one. At the same time his foreign wife Anna (Zahra Newman) is dying, although even that fails to stir any great passion within Ivanov.

Flack’s adaptation, which he also directs, is written in a very direct Australian vernacular with hints of the poetic. These are characters who have spent a lot of time thinking about their place in the world and have unique and darkly funny ways of expressing themselves, from Ivanov’s swirling existential monologues to Lebedev’s appealingly simple worldview: “I’m sitting here, I’m sitting here, I’m sitting here, I’m dead.”

It’s brilliantly funny, but there’s a knowingness and confidence to the way Flack allows Chekhov’s story to unfold with urgency and heart: into this world of realism he throws explicit references to Chekhov’s gun and even bluntly and efficiently deals with exposition by just having characters state facts straight out, such as “we’re on a country estate!”

Flack has also brought in plenty of up-to-the-minute social and economic commentary, which contextualises the suffering of every character. Flack draws these conversations out mainly through the characters of Zinaida (Thomson) and Babakina (Blazey Best), who have been recast as the Real Housewives of Russia, costumed in beautifully gaudy Eurotrash ensembles by costume designer Mel Page. With their Kath and Kim-inspired banter about the realities of the economy (although they are obviously much better informed) they win plenty of laughs and come close to stealing the show.

But every actor gets their time in the limelight in this very clever and playful production. There are broadly hilarious strokes involving nods to popular Western music — especially the third act opener, which may have been a little funnier if Tony Abbott were still Prime Minister — but Flack smooths over all the potentially awkward transitions from comedy to tragedy.

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This is largely down to Ewen Leslie’s astonishing performance in the title role. Leslie has a rare, raw force as an actor and he’s able to harness and focus it into something extraordinary in this role. He more than meets his greatest challenge: to make this character’s internal turmoil resonate externally for the entire audience.

Yalin Ozucelik provides the perfect counterpoint as the doctor Lvov, who seems on the same trajectory as Ivanov, becoming quickly disillusioned with the world. But he still has the passion deep within to demand justice and fairness for the people around him, particularly Ivanov’s neglected wife Anna, who is played with great dignity and generosity by Zahra Newman. And there’s a clever symmetry between Newman’s performance and Airlie Dodds’ as Ivanov’s younger, fresher and more energetic romantic interest Sasha.

John Bell, John Howard and Fayssal Bazzi all turn in memorable performances; all three as classically Chekhovian “tragic clowns” with an extra touch of cheekiness thrown in.

The central appeal of Chekhov comes across strongly and clearly in this Ivanov: it’s theatre which allows us to share a common experience of despair which, in a strange way, gives the audience hope. Or, at the very least, provides a few good laughs and reminds that none of us are completely alone in this struggle.

Ivanov is at the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir, Sydney until November 1. Images by Brett Boardman.

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