QUT, The Loft
May 1 – 5
“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it”, seminal Russian playwright Anton Chekhov once stated, giving birth to the concept of ‘Chekhov’s gun’ about the power of details to create meaning and expectation in theatre. It is a quote that appears, amongst others, projected as an opening backdrop during the QUT Bachelor of Fine Arts (Acting) second-year students’ production of the master storyteller’s early four act work. It is a particular appropriate initial choice too, not just due to the appearance of recurring Chekhov motifs (like a gun) in the play, but as foreshadow of a work that amplifies any expectations in its enlivened realisation of the essentially pessimistic tale of 19th century Russian aristocrats.
The story centres on the pointlessly miserable Nikolai Ivanov (Jack Bannister). Once full of energy for his life, he neglects his estate, writings and wife, the terminally-ill tubercular Anna (Nicole Hoskins) who renounced her Judaism (and lost her family) to marry him. With his tragic circumstances putting him further into debt, he attempts to escape the spiral in a love affair with his much younger neighbour Sasha (Sarah Edwards).
“Ivanov” may lack the subtlety and nuance of Chekhov’s later works, where the real tragedy is that daily life has to be endured, but it does show the seeds of the playwright’s subsequent masterpieces. Indeed, it is widely believed that “Ivanov”, written when Chekhov was 27, is a comic Russian “Hamlet” and this is certainly evident in this production. We may not be emotionally engaged by Ivanov’s character, but Daniel Evans’ direction allows the comedy and the tragedy of the story to blend beautifully.
There are no weak links in across the cast and creatives. Bannister does a decent job as the self-aware titular anti-hero, especially as he monologues at-length laments after having been accused by his wife’s rigidly-moral doctor (a consistent, controlled Georgia Tucker) of being a heartless fortune-hunter. Grady Ferricks-Rosevear is an energetic Misha Borkin, making the manager of Ivanov’s estate a likeable jester in his money-making proposals and Wei Lan Zhong is absolutely hilarious in her animation of widowed estate owner, Marfa Babakina. But the greatest laughs come courtesy of William Carseldine whose manic eccentricity enhances the buffoonery of Ivanov’s uncle Matvei Shabelsky.
Performances are enhanced by a rich and cohesive aesthetic. Act One begins in sepia-toned seriousness, with a scant stage scattered with brown leaves affronting a jumble of rundown furniture pieces amidst which fairy lights tumble. This is then ostentatiously contrasted by a farcical Act Two which shouts in vibrant reds. The attention continues with the detailed set of Nicolai’s study before a year-later Act Four ends things with a bang.
Song and dance numbers also enliven the transition between acts, perfectly capturing their respective sensibilities. (A catchy ‘Call Me Maybe’, led by Carseldine is a particular standout.) Although there is a lot happening on stage, every element has been considered for its stylistic possibilities and the result is a highly-polished piece of theatre. Slick scene changes are choreographed within dance numbers and lighting dims to soften reflective, emotional monologues.
Everything about this production of “Ivanov” is first-rate. Just as he did with La Boite Theatre Company’s “The Tragedy of King Richard III”, Director Daniel Evans has not only paid homage to a classic of the theatrical cannon but found the humour and fun within a morally ambiguous play. Eamon Flack’s adaptation of the original text is nuanced already, however, in Evans’ hands it bursts with life, making it both excellent and entertaining theatre.