Dir. Lewis Harding
How do you play an absence? Perhaps more pertinently, how do you put on a play whose main character is no longer there – the man we see on stage just a shell? Although certainly not without a few misfires, Lewis Harding’s production attacks this problem with gusto.
Oli Clayton as the play’s titular character manages to play up Ivanov’s paradoxical nature – both the ever present elephant in the room for the audience, constantly on stage, while acting as a chameleon inside the play’s white world, blending in with the walls and floor. The play itself serves as a comment on the pains of depression, the formerly merry Ivanov brought low by mental illness, dragging everything down with him. Cara Mahoney’s Anna seems to belong to the same world as Clayton’s Ivanov – drawing the audience in with an intimate performance that drives us to the brink of tears in some of the tenser scenes between the two. Similarly, the sexual tension between Sasha (played by Caterina Giammarresi) and Ivanov was palpable – indeed Giammarresi was one of the highlights of the play, mediating Clayton and Mahoney’s insular performances with some of the more bombastic actors.
Bombastic may be an understatement: Arnie Birss’s Count Shabelsky, while certainly humorous, was playing to the rafters. The issue was that we were in the Barron and the rafters were barely 3 meters above his head. Indeed, this approach was taken by several members of the cast to varying effect, the main issue being how greatly it jars with the more naturalistic performances of the main characters. Presumably this was a directional choice to stress the separation between Ivanov’s private life and the wider separation as a result of his depression, but at times it moved certain characters into the realm of caricature, which generally doesn’t make for the best viewing experience.
The play seems to be defined by these kind of mishaps. Certainly it was visually beautiful – the white and black colour palate creating interesting dynamics between the world and its characters. Yet this was hampered at times by confusing blackouts or scripts being present in books on stage. Likewise, while there were funny scene changes involving drunken servants, sets were also disassembled in the middle of intense arguments, snapping you right out of the moment.
Ivanov isn’t one of Chekhov’s better known plays, but regardless of any concerns the production team managed to pull it all together. There were a few frayed threads but they never lost the core image of their play: a man sits on stage, and disappears before our very eyes.