Ivanov | Katona József Theatre

Ivanov | Katona József TheatrePhotos - Trent O’Donnell

A Chekhov play performed in Hungarian with surtitles may seem a little daunting for the theatrically faint-hearted. This production, however, is wonderful and completely engaging. It perfectly demonstrates why Chekhov is considered a master.

The Katona József Theatre understands how to play Chekhov in a way that is so often missed by Australian productions which are too often rooted in a stifling sense of realism with a token smattering of comedy.

This production bursts with life. The Eastern European sensibility of the company and its energetic, highly choreographed, heightened performance style simultaneously render Chekhov’s Ivanov as both drama and melodrama, making it truly tragi-comic.

The aristocratic Nikolai Ivanov (Ernő Fekete) is only thirty-five but he suffers from an unshakeable ennui arising from his belief that his life has no meaning. He probably has depression or, perhaps, what we would now call a mid-life crisis. He has fallen from a clever, wealthy and capable youth, full of optimism and purpose, to a failure as both a land owner and husband.

“I feel neither love nor pity, just weariness” he says of his inability to offer any compassion to his dying wife (Ildikó Tóth). Stripped of love and of his wealth, Ivanov is abjectly aware of his failure and it fills him with shame. The amorous pursuit by his debtor’s daughter aggravates his sorry predicament and exposes him further.

Ivanov is just too clever, articulate, and self obsessed, too bound up in his own thoughts. He has a poetic temperament but without the ability to create. He wallows in his self loathing to such a degree it is ridiculous, then amusing and, finally, almost absurdist.

Director, Tamás Ascher’s production exuberantly highlights the comedy and absurdity of the situation, whilst not for a minute undermining the gravity of Ivanov’s disappointment. We never lose touch with his genuine pain or of the final tragedy.

Ernő Fekete is a terrific Ivanov, immensely charismatic and every bit the fallen star. All the characters in the twenty-two strong company contribute outstanding ensemble work. Each character, no matter how minor, from the cards bore to the old woman who is jokingly kissed, is detailed, nuanced and with their own fascinating narrative.

In this production, Ascher has cleverly transposed the setting to 1960s post revolutionary Hungary – a period that introduced a new social order. Ivanov’s uncle, Count Shabelsky, wonderfully played by Gábor Máté, shares a similarly nihilistic world view to Ivanov, having also lost his fortune. The aristocracy without money, he notes, is held in contempt and are despised.

Zsolt Khell’s set, a tatty, nondescript, Eastern European town hall, complimented by a soundtrack of 1960s music from a transistor radio, both work to set the tone of faded glory.

Zoltán Bezerédi’s Lebedhev, to whom Ivanov is deeply in debt, brilliantly provides the heart of the play. Ildikó Tóth, playing Ivanov’s wife, Anna Petrovna and Adél Jordán playing Sasha, his fiancée, both deliver feisty performances and offer a foil to Ivanov’s histrionics. Ervin Nagy embodies the exuberance of the production, treating the audience to high comedy as Borkin, Ivanov’s unethical foreman.

2009 Sydney Festival
Katona József Theatre
by Anton Chekhov

Directed by Tamás Ascher

Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates/Times: January 22–25, 27 at 7pm, January 24 at 2pm, January 26 at 5pm
Duration: 3hrs 10mins, including interval
Tickets: $75/$65
Booking: Sydney Opera House 02 9250 7777 | Ticketek 1300 888 412

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