Calder Hudson reviews Lewis Harding (director) and Neil Christy’s (producer) production of Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, which went up 19th-21st February in the Barron Theatre. See the Tribe’s preview of Ivanov here.
Ivanov, produced by Neil Christy and directed by Lewis Harding, is equal parts odd and earnest. The number of factors and features behind this assertion are extensive, but somewhat difficult to describe. Even taking some small bumps and stutters into account, the synthesis of the show’s acting, lighting, costumes, and setting worked relatively seamlessly—each individual piece of this larger symbiosis was a standalone success. Each aspect of Ivanov worked towards the presentation of its thematic core, creating a product as ambiguous as it is exceptional.
Harding and Christy made good use of their venue, which can be problematic for many production teams. The Barron’s black box presents a number of issues: its backstage is geographically divorced, its malleability is (ironically, for a black box) limited, and it lacks the space for sets and scene-changes of a grandiose nature. Still, Ivanov used the Barron’s better traits to a distinct advantage; though they changed the colour of the canvas to white, the production team made sure to keep their space free and changeable as suited their production.
The props in the play were few, but each one stood out and felt very extravagant in its own right; similarly, costumes were (especially among the men) all born of one basic concept, but diversified considerably through the use of color. Indeed, the sense of the stage as a blank canvas was helped by Harding and Christy’s presentation of bright colors, making the play a pretty sight, especially taking into account its diverse lighting effects. Technically, Ivanov was bound together tidily and effectively; it felt like a unified production instead of like a play with actors and lights.
In its tech, Ivanov proved full of dualities —a feature that carried over onto its cast. When writing a review, it is typical to make note of the outstanding actors in a production, but with Ivanov it is complicated. The cast teemed not only with esteemed Mermaids veterans, but also with a rare and binding chemistry. In most productions one or two performers stand out, for better or for worse, but this was not the case in Ivanov. The play’s cast was connected through an impressively symbiotic relationship that ensured that scenes, rather than actors, either lacked or exuded energy. Because the show’s props were limited, establishing the sense of excess and unsatisfying frivolity essential to its plot was a task left to the actors. Since another central theme of Ivanov was the boredom of its characters, Harding was surely aware that this sense of dissatisfaction might have saturated into the audience, had things gone wrong. Thankfully, it did not; although the play could have possessed a pinch more energy in its middle, several scenes (including, most thankfully, the play’s conclusion) were given an extra shot of adrenaline.
Even with all this taken into account, Borkin and Count Shabelsky (Frazer Hadfield and Arnie Birss, respectively) do deserve particular commendation for especially inspired performances, as no scene with them ever lost focus or fuel. Babakina (Emma Taylor), Sasha (Caterina Giammarresi), and Gabriel (Peter Von Zahnd) were also powerful presences onstage, and were such animated and spirited members of the cast that they often did not need words to draw the audience’s attention.
Finally there is Oli Clayton, who played the titular Ivanov —as much a character in his own right as an avatar for the play’s thematic substance. The show stresses that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, and much of the characters’ boredom, disillusionment, and fading vitality is embodied by the world-weary Ivanov himself. Harding and Christy thoughtfully bedecked Clayton in a white suit, matching his backdrop, to further this connection; the play’s ambiance and its “hero” were effectively blended together. Ivanov is an apathetic but honest man —a well suited emblem for a production that, for all its creative ambiguity, did not grow overly focused thereupon. In this regard, Clayton himself did well not only in the presentation of Ivanov, but also in the presentation of Ivanov.
Oddness is Ivanov’s means to an end rather than its point, empowering the production past simple shock-and-awe strangeness. It is candid, and bleak for all its vibrance. Its “focused ambiguousness” —the disciplined depiction of an undisciplined ideology— makes the play’s uncertainty flourish. For Harding and Christy’s Ivanov then, oddity and excellence are not mutually exclusive.
Photo credits: Mathilde Johnsen