james debate
james debate

Sunday 7 December 2008

The Donmar is, as any seasoned theatre patron in London will tell you, one of the best and most highly esteemed production companies around. The cosy homeliness of the Donmar Warehouse presents audiences with a uniquely intimate and personal view of some of the finest plays written, featuring some of the finest actors alive.

Now they've traded these humble surroundings for Wyndham's Theatre near Leicester Square in order to put on one of the most exciting seasons I've ever seen. Four plays, Ivanov, Twelfth Night, Madame de Sade and Hamlet, featuring thespian superstars Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench and Jude Law respectively. And now I have seen the first of these productions, Ivanov starring Kenneth Branagh.

donmar ivanov kenneth branagh

The play is Anton Chekhov's Ivanov. Chekhov was a late 19th Century playwright and I had the good fortune to study him at Eton during a Theatre Studies course. We were reading his play the Three Sisters. First time I read it, things were not looking so good, but that's probably largely due to it having been a school assignment, and my lack of appreciation for good theatre back then. After studying it properly and understanding it, I truly saw what a genius Chekhov was and I was stunned. To write such beautifully interwoven and intricate stories and conceal it within such nonchalant, delicately subtext-laden dialogue was truly remarkable.

Ivanov is a play of similar, if slightly less, quality. But in a production like this it doesn't matter. Michael Grandage as director has done a fantastic job creating a world that sucks you in, and the acting is simply top notch featuring a whole host of recognizable and talented faces.

Kenneth Branagh is, predictably, superb as the unusually unlikable star of the show, Ivanov. Everyone knows what a wonderful actor he is, but this production shows the man at the height of his powers, summoning a performance both of masterfully subtle restraint and heartfelt angst that is unnervingly real.

But the real highlight of the evening is the powerhouse performance from Kevin McNally, who you'll recognize from Pirates of the Caribbean, Sliding Doors, the forthcoming Valkyrie and many other films, plays and tv shows. His performance as Lebedev is truly something to behold. He acts like a dynamo urging the play on with his infectious energy and you'll find your eyes drawn to him every time he's on stage.

This is an excellent production, especially considering the play is one that I was warned beforehand was one of Chekhov's dryer plays. But make no mistake, this is as good as it gets and one of the best productions i've seen in a long time. Looking forward to the next ones.

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