First Night: Ivanov, Wyndham's Theatre, London

5.00

Branagh at his best in Donmar season debut

Ivanov, the earliest play by Chekhov to receive a production in Russia, is not often revived these days. But the title role – of a landowner in the mother of all mid-life crises – is notable in this country for the way it has lured two British stars back from the screen to their illustrious starting point, the stage. A decade ago, Ralph Fiennes played the part for Jonathan Kent at the Almeida. And now, giving a performance of extraordinary perceptiveness and human breadth, Kenneth Branagh has an almighty crack at Ivanov.

The production by Michael Grandage is exhilarating in its insight into desperate depression and its understanding that Chekhov, though writing in a very different mode, was way ahead of Beckett in realising that there is nothing funnier than unhappiness. The occasion could scarcely be a more auspicious launch of the Donmar Warehouse's West End season at Wyndham's Theatre. Branagh also happens to be the associate director of this run of top-flight, reasonably priced drama which will end with his production of Hamlet, starring Jude Law.

The season is therefore book-ended by projects related to the Black Prince and the black dog. In Tom Stoppard's biting, buoyantly funny (and skilfully filleted) translation, Ivanov berates himself for his "provincial performance of a hand-me-down Hamlet". The humiliating difference is that Chekhov's hero is middle-aged, badly in debt to a friend and saddled with the reputation of having married the Jewish Anna Petrovna (excellent Gina McKee) for her money, only to have his greed boomerang back on him when she is cut off by her strictly religious parents. To add insult to injury, she is now dying of tuberculosis – a fact that is cruel not least in highlighting his loss of love for her.

In preparing for the production, Branagh seems to have relaxed his spirit around every corner of the role before deciding where to screw up the intensity. One side of his Ivanov watches his own decline with appalled scientific curiosity; another chokes with hectic sobs as though in losing his earlier better self he were like a child suddenly bereaved of its parent.

There's an amazing sequence where his creditor and friend Lebedev (a moneyed old soak whose sense of beleaguered hilarity is brilliantly conveyed by Kevin McNally) offers to lend him the money with which to appear to pay back Lebedev's on-the-warpath wife. Branagh reacts to the wad of notes on the table with the stillness of infinite, clear-eyed sorrow, as though it were the accusing embodiment of his rock-bottom shame and then collapses in a stricken, silently sobbing foetal heap.

This is great acting, no question. He's beyond praise in the way this Ivanov responds to his wife's righteous doctor, whose priggish self-regard comes through with just the right insidious force in Tom Hiddleston's finely tuned portrayal. Unlike the doctor, who thinks he knows exactly whom to blame and by how much, Chekhov's hero is sharply aware that there is also something hidden deep inside everyone that does part of our choosing for us. Branagh conveys his contempt for the medic and his certainties with a scathing show of mock-deference to an objective inquisition. And even in extremis, his Ivanov can cock an amused eyebrow and unwind into flexible humour as his listens to the missionary zeal of Sasha (pitch-perfect Andrea Riseborough), the young heiress who wants to make it her life's work to save him.

Everything is spot-on. Paule Constable's exquisite lighting that presents the first act's evening as a honeyed haze and Ivanov's den as a 19th-century French painting illuminated from above through grimy, leaf-clogged skylight. There's Grandage's wondrous instinct for pace and dynamics that here reveal the play to be like a parody of one of Dostoevsky's black, mood-swing farces (though without the Christian preoccupations). On more than one count, then, a must-see.

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