Ivanov is a gem. It’s as if Eamon Flack (the production's adaptor/director as well as Belvoir’s new artistic director) has picked up the encyclopaedia of Australian adaptations of European classics and is waving it above his head, proclaiming, “this is how you do an adaptation!” He’s struck gold with this attempt to cut and stitch a Chekhovian original and create an astute social criticism for our country, in our time.
He even divulges his secret: “Comedy is tragedy sped up.” The rolling pace of Ivanov is one of its greatest achievements — astoundingly so, when you consider the play revolves around a 35-year-old male's existential crisis.
If the purpose of adapting a classic is indeed to resuscitate it — ensure it’s fit for consumption for a new generation of viewers (who have a lot more tugging at their consciousness than the associated woes of the end of Russian imperialism, believe it or not) — then Ivanov is beautifully executed. To be honest, I didn’t know much at all about the play from the outset, except that it was Chekhov’s first completed script and audiences did not quite know what to make of it at its 1887 premiere.
An accomplished and playful cast deliver Flack’s writing, which is piercing and clever. Shabelsky (John Bell), Lebedev (John Howard) and Borkin (Fayssal Bazzi) appropriate the ‘money talk’ of Chekhov’s original into discussions about Germany and Greece in the EU bailout saga, and Zinaida (Helen Thomson) and Babakina (Blazey Best) speculate about Chinese investment. Babakina is cast as a Rinehart-esque character, a desperately lonely widow who has learned the hard way money doesn’t keep you warm at night.
Ivanov (Ewen Leslie), Sasha (Airlie Dodds), Anna (Zahra Newman), Lvov (Yalin Ozucelik) and Gabriella (Mel Dyer, who ‘acts’ her stage manager job with great understatement and irreverence) complete the ensemble. Thomson, in her nouveau-riche-bogan white jumpsuit is simply joyous to watch. Bell seems completely comfortable as the misbehaving uncle, chuckling at his own jokes and making you fall in love with him despite yourself.
Ivanov shouts a stark wake-up call for Australian society, in a very hilarious way. Chekhov/Flack address issues ranging from xenophobia to sustainability, from mental illness to the follies of love. It's all fused in the titular character, performed masterfully by Leslie, who elicits your strong reaction (annoyance?) at his self-obsessed ways. However, the complexity and honesty of Leslie’s portrayal makes it impossible to judge this 'Nick Johnson' – isn’t he just the human mirror for our own crises, as benefactors of first-world prosperity? Ivanov chronicles the complaints of the inheritance class, bemoaning country life and the changes to society (migrant doctors, religious diversity, etc).
The set for the first act is lovely, as is the unceremonious way it’s disassembled — the lone spindly tree trying to hang on to life, while its peers have all been removed for the spacious wooden decking. The sky has been painted onto the walls — the expanse of existentialist musings.
Running at 2 hours 40 minutes, Ivanov is a full-night venture, but there's pleasure with every minute that passes. A great adaptation — bravo! And if you buy the program, you'll be traveling home with some lovely new writing.
Images: Brett Boardman.