His Hamlet was less than overwhelming. But two years later, Ralph Fiennes has taken on Chekhov's 'Ivanov' - and won
HE was 27 when he wrote Ivanov, his first full-length play, and the draft took Chekhov two weeks. In Britain his efforts were largely neglected, as unwieldy, immature and melodramatic: this, the thinking went, was the warm-up work. That was until Wednesday. David Hare's revelatory new version, premiered at the Almeida, lights a firework under these dim preconceptions, and the colours that emerge are bold, fresh and extravagant. It's as if Hare had chucked away an old Victorian photograph and replaced it with a Howard Hodgkin. When seen in this exuberant, full-blooded light, the play's unevenness turns into a virtue. Ivanov becomes a rollercoaster ride, offering vertiginous shifts in mood and a series of cracking good scenes. In Hare's version, a play about frustration and despair fills the audience with precisely the opposite.

Jonathan Kent's production provides little of the traditional atmospherics we associate with Chekhov. On the first night, the most noticeable Stanislavskian touches - the sound of a downpour, the wind creaking in the roof - came from the filthy weather outside. What other off-stage noises there were - the clip-clop of horses' hooves, the screech of an owl - had the terse simplicity of the sound effects used on The Archers. In this Ivanov, provincial Russia in the 1880s is evoked by the highly particular people who crowd the small stage: whether it's the squeakily vulgar heiress (Diane Bull), nodding her head metronomically, as she listens to some lugubrious piano-playing; or the obsessive card-player Kosykh (Ian McDiarmid), widening his eyes with horror as the wrong hand is played. Kent finds Chekhov's world in the lives of those who inhabit it, not in the place itself.

Chief among these lives is Ralph Fiennes's Ivanov. Ten years ago at the National, Fiennes played a Russian student, Arkady, in Brian Friel's version of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. Fiennes was sweet, trusting and optimistic. In Ivanov, he might easily be playing a thirtysomething Arkady. "At 20, we're all heroes," Ivanov remarks. "By 30, we're already exhausted." Here is a bookish landowner, with an estate he can't afford, a wife suffering from tuberculosis, and, at 35, an overwhelming sense of shame at the way he has wasted his life. It eats away at him.

The 10 years between the two Russians have been good for Fiennes. He has always been one for self-disgust. What marks out this new brand is the muscular vigour with which he loathes himself. He's thicker set, with a huskier voice and a hint of Alan Rickman. He stuffs his knuckles down his mouth to stifle emotions and strokes the air with his palm, as if half-formed thoughts were simply not worth completing. "I've ceased to understand anyone, anything," Fiennes tells us, within 10 minutes. What's remarkable, considering how quickly and emphatically he unburdens himself, is the number of revelations still to come. When Fiennes battles it out with the thin-lipped, bony-fingered Dr Lvov (Colin Tierney), they have the sort of hotly contested debate - between someone who believes in honesty at all costs, and someone who is disgusted by the other's self- confidence - that would be the centrepiece of most plays. But minutes later, there's another riveting critical exchange, this time between Ivanov and his desperately sick wife, Anna, the Jewish bluestocking, who has been disowned by her family. Harriet Walter plays Anna with a haunting loneliness and drawn, ashen pallor, contriving during the interval to lose a stone and gain five years.

The film experience shows itself with Fiennes: when he confesses to the money-lender Zinaida Savishna (an indignant Rosemary McHale) that he wants a loan deferred, the exactness of the verbal hesitancies and the humiliated facial twitches makes you feel this Oscar nominee is also ready to do this scene in close-up. Only one curious detail is missing. Fiennes spends a good deal of time shaking his hennaed hair, burying his oblong moustache in his hands, and looking down. When he does look out, the combination of his high forehead, which slopes at the same angle as his nose, and Mark Henderson's low-key lighting doesn't help us. We rarely see through the two little pools of gloom that are Fiennes's eyesockets, to catch the troubled intelligence in his deep-set blue eyes. He is not Hamlet, he is at pains to point out (to the amusement of the audience); but he is an heroic, conscience-stricken figure, tormented and tormenting. Fiennes is very moving as he tries to exorcise himself, almost literally, churning his hands in front of his heart, as if scooping out of himself the shameful, complaining, dismal person that has him hostage.

Not that Ivanov is a star vehicle. Whenever Fiennes leaves the stage, it crackles and bustles with other life. Even if his understudy was on, there would be half-a-dozen performances worth the ticket price. Act Three opens with a vintage vodka scene between three middle-aged men, which, in terms of opportunities gratefully snatched by top-flight actors, rivals the olive- eating sequence in Art: they are the short noisy vulgar Borkin (Anthony O'Donnell), the growling, loftily unreasonable misanthrope, Count Shabyelski (Oliver Ford Davies), who looks like the ancestor of some mad uncle in an Evelyn Waugh novel, and the genial, red-nosed, imploring husband, Lebedev (Bill Paterson), who is caught between his ravenously stingy wife and his steadfastly earnest daughter Sasha (Justine Waddell, making her debut). Whether it's in riotous scenes, such as this, searing argument, or the chilling closing moment, Jonathan Kent heightens and shapes the action to tremendous effect. If you've ever met anyone who knows someone who works at the Almeida box office, renew that contact now.

In Doug Lucie's new play The Shallow End, a smart wedding is in progress for the daughter of a media magnate. As in The Godfather, the real business of hiring and firing goes on inside the house. Lucie has patches of accurate satirical comment about the media: the relaunch of the Sunday paper includes a new style section, "Whoosh", a pop and football fanzine. Jane Asher, improbably cast as the frustrated wife of the political editor, makes waspish remarks about journos, and the final scene perks up with a Pilgerish correspondent (Nigel Terry), who talks like Bogart from down under. What The Shallow End lacks, in Robin Lefevre's production, is any convincing suggestion that Lucie finds journalists interesting.

It's a relief to return to tough, quickfire dialogue, that gives a compelling sense of people actually thinking out loud, in Lindsay Posner's excellent revival of David Mamet's superb American Buffalo at the Young Vic. The three petty crooks, who plan to steal an American Buffalo nickel, are vividly realised on a spectacular junk-shop set designed by Joanna Parker. Neil Stuke plays the hesitant Bob, answering a question "Because" and then just nodding and nodding as if the nods somehow amplified the argument. Nicholas Woodeson is impressive as a molelike, determined Don, and Douglas Henshall, chopping the air with his hands and involuntarily snorting mid-sentence, is a flighty, memorable Teach. High-adrenalin stuff.

In The Slow Drag, a jazz musical at the Freedom Cafe in Soho's Wardour Street, Kim Criswell plays the singer June Wedding, married to band musician Johnny Christmas (Nikki Slade), whom nobody but June knew was a woman (see Expert Eye, below). Carson Kreitzer's play, inspired by a jazz musician Billy Tipton, widens its theme to include Chester (Christopher Colquhoun), a light-skinned black musician who passes as white to play in the clubs. The Slow Drag, half compilation show, half backstage drama, blurs the boundaries between cabaret and drama, and left me wanting one thing or the other, but not this.

Theatre details: Going Out, page 14.