All is lost without a kayak: Belvoir’s Ivanov

Written in 1887, Ivanov is perhaps Chekhov’s thorniest play – even to Chekhov himself – and he rewrote it a year later, while a third version appeared in print before his death in 1904. From the very beginning of its life, audiences couldn’t make up their minds about Ivanov – the play as much as the character – and whether they sympathised with him or not. This was something of a dilemma for Chekhov, and he subsequently reworked it, perhaps never being fully satisfied with it. Astonishingly, this production at Belvoir is its first Australian mainstage production under the direction of Eamon Flack, and it is a strange play, but it is also something of an antidote – a way to close one door and open another.

Characterised by an unusual bitterness (even for Chekhov, you might say), Ivanov is the story of Nikolai Ivanov – a former schoolteacher-cum-writer – who feels he is going mad with stagnation. He lives on a crumbling property, his wife is terminally ill, he owes his neighbours a substantial amount of money, and has more than a passing interest in their daughter. Rather than blame society or the faults in one’s character for a person’s indecision, Rose Whyman believes Chekhov forensically problematises the breakdown of a man who tried to modernise in the face of stubborn reluctance, along with its accompanying moral and philosophical quandaries.
In true Flack fashion, this Ivanov is serious but also (more than) a little bit ridiculous, but it works in service of the text, of Chekhov’s intentions, and doesn’t feel gratuitous or forced. His cast of nine congregate and ebb like moths around a flame, and it is a joy to see a production that is as alive and playful whilst still managing to be totally serious. Staged on Michael Hankin’s courtyard set – which is transformed, in turn, into a lounge room, and a study – is large and nondescript enough to be our own country as much as it could be contemporary Russia, or perhaps more of an idea of ‘Russia’ as seen through a contemporary Australian lens than actual Australia or Russia themselves. With its high walls, lemon tree, parquet-style paving, and misted windows, it’s the image of a once-splendid house that has gone to seed, of a dream that has soured and faded, a dream you have woken from, but there’s still life resolutely clinging to it, if only you’d pull back the curtains and open the door to see. Mel Page’s costumes are functional, yet they capture the quiet desperation in the characters’ dreams to escape the place they find themselves in and carve a better niche for themselves. Verity Hampson’s lighting gently transitions from day through afternoon to night, and back again, and hauntingly reflects the dark night of the soul that Ivanov faces late in Act Three. Steve Toulmin’s music and sound design captures the blend of periods and locations wonderfully, and we are treated to a number of songs, not least the (stroke-of-genius) Rustralian anthem straight after interval.
Flack’s cast, led by the charismatic Ewen Leslie, revel in the glorious fullness of life which Chekhov and Flack both revel in. Leslie’s Ivanov desperately tries to cling to his integrity but finds it slipping through his fingers like sand, and tries to be a better person than he might otherwise be. As Ivanov’s wife Anna, Zahra Newman delivers a performance which is nuanced, gently fierce, and passionate, despite her illness. Fayssal Bazzi as Ivanov’s cousin Misha is the life of the party, but underneath his exuberance is a desperation that is rather poignant. John Bell’s roguish Shabelsky is a cousin to his Falstaff, with a heart of gold somewhere underneath all the bluster and bluffing. Airlie Dodds’ Sasha is a fiery young woman, by turns girlish and more mature than her years would credit, and her determinism at the end is moving and a little sad. Blazey Best’s Marfa Babakina is a wealthy (recent) widow, with a sharp eye for finance and fashion, and a desperation for moving up in the world, for escaping to America with a wealthy man. John Howard’s Lebedev, Ivanov’s neighbour, seems initially like a beer-drinking pushover, but as the play progresses, we realize that it is only because his wife Zinaida (Helen Thomson) has such a fierce hold on their finances, that he really isn’t concerned how things turn out, so long as he and his friends are happy or content. Yalin Ozucelik’s Lvov, the physician, could perhaps be read as an avatar for Chekhov himself, but that would be too simplistic; Ozucelik’s character tries to call his acquaintances out on their foibles and character flaws without realizing that he perhaps is part of their problem.
It is unfortunate that this play should open so soon on the heels of The Present, because the similarities between Chekhov’s two earliest plays are quite noticeable. That is not to undermine this production’s strengths, but rather to remark upon the stylistic similarities and tropes present in all of Chekhov’s work. In many respects, this is the stronger of the two plays – Chekhov here has traded in the youthful sprawl and neurotic clutter of Platonov, and replaced it with a sharper and more pointed observation on the way society works, a more pertinent examination of character and humanity. It is still characteristically Chekhovian though – characters yearn for the past, for the ‘old days,’ there is much talk about philosophy, life, love, and art, and there’s a bit with a gun. Here we see, perhaps for the first time in Chekhov’s plays, the ideas which would permeate his four later plays (The SeagullUncle VanyaThree Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard) – namely, the idea that we live for something bigger than ourselves, and how do we do that? All of his plays revolve around this idea – are explorations of this idea – and Ivanov is perhaps the first real statement of this.
As Flack notes in his director’s note in the program, the play’s setting required very little work to update it from Russia c. 1890 to the Russia of today. Some of the politics might have changed, the conflicts might be in different parts of the world, but there still remains the fact that we seem to be very much living without a thought to our legacy or past – just for us, here, now, in the (recently-passed) “Age of Abbott.” When I spoke to Flack in January, he described it as though we’ve reached a point of arrival – that is, as a society we seem to be living like we have reached the end of our journey of progress – and are living only for the here-and-now. It’s a potentially controversial idea, but it’s not new by any means – Chekhov and Gorky were writing about it a hundred-odd years ago, and yet it still remains applicable and just as relevant to us today. And yet, amongst this chaos and collective societal negativism, plays like Ivanov are able to show us the dangers in self-absorption, in solipsism, and show us the benefits in living for others. To paraphrase Flack, while there might be a ‘rampant Ivanov inside each of us – terrified, broken, unsure how to proceed; desperately trying to talk his way out of the darkness,’ there is also the compassion and strength in numbers, in fellow-feeling and community amongst ourselves, that can help us get by, help us to keep living.

In much the same way that The Glass Menagerie, Angels in America, and As You Like It exemplified Flack’s penchant and “sensitivity to the feelings of others, a palpable concern for those who don’t fit in,” Ivanov could also be read as effectively closing the book on Ralph Myers’ tenure as artistic director at Belvoir; yet at the same time, with its overt silliness and delight in the comically absurd moments of humanity (of which there are more than several here), he seems to be heralding in a new era of theatre-making at Belvoir; a “celebration of human magnificence and human ridiculousness[,] a great gathering of hopeless, helpless, marvelous creatures in pursuit of a better life. Or at least a life with a bigger animating idea than, well, than whatever it is that’s animating the country right now.”

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