Following its successful run of Shukshin’s Stories, The Barbican recently hosted the Theatre of Nations’ rendition of Ivanov, Anton Chekhov’s first full-length play written in 1887. Like Shukshin, Chekhov explored the universal nature of human flaws in his writing, largely ignoring politics and producing works which would resonate for years to come. In this 2016 production, director Timofey Kulyabin captures the unique poetic value and black humour of Chekhov’s original in a modernised version set in present-day Russia. The character of Ivanov is portrayed by Evgeny Mironov as a deeply miserable office worker who is experiencing a mid-life crisis and seething self-hatred, both of which consume him and damage his relationships. His wife is terminally ill with cancer, he owes a large amount of money to the Lebedevs, and he believes his last chance of happiness is his affection for Sasha, his creditors’ daughter. The play’s four acts are performed against stunningly detailed sets by Oleg Golovko, which depict Ivanov’s home and office, the Lebedevs’ dacha, and a marriage registry office. Through a surprising combination of music, props, costumes and exceptional acting, Kulyabin’s production provides an immersive and authentic experience for Russian and British viewers alike.

Doctor Lvov resents how Ivanov treats Anna, but also fancies her for himself

The play begins in Ivanov’s home, which he shares with his terminally ill wife, Anna, and his desperately bored and irritable uncle. Ivanov is visited by Lvov, Anna’s brutally honest and disliked doctor, and Mikhail, a distant relative who is constantly trying to conjure up money-making schemes. It is immediately clear that Ivanov is an unhappy man; he is short-tempered, stubborn and prefers to spend his evenings at the Lebedevs’ house than with his wife. He has lost control but is ill-equipped to find a positive way out. The routine elements of his daily life, even in this very first scene, lay out his inner world before us. Similarly, Anna’s inner world and struggle appear before us throughout the play, in the form of the recurring owl motif which will haunt Ivanov in several scenes. Russian viewers will immediately pick up on certain modern touches to this first set: large jars of pickles line the balcony and a fridge magnet collection covers the fridge door.

A highlight of the performance is Sasha’s birthday party in the dacha in Act Two. The Lebedevs and guests gossip about Ivanov before his arrival, slander his formerly Jewish wife who converted to Russian Orthodoxy to marry Ivanov, and only stop to dance when Sasha jumps to his defence. The party is a fast-paced drinking extravaganza, showcasing the guests’ best attempts at dancing, waving sparklers, and kitschy presents. The performances of Pavel Gordin as Pavel Lebedev and Alexander Novin as Mikhail Borkin stand out – Lebedev dons a bear rug as a shawl and Borkin enters with sparklers, wearing horns and singing for Sasha. The audience is also treated to a comic performance of ‘Alexandra’ from Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears, by Olga Lapshina in the role of family guest Avdotia Nazarova. Misha’s horns create an entirely different aurora when Ivanov puts them on and sits alone in the dacha while the other guests dance and enjoy fireworks outside. Sound is used very cleverly in this scene. Muffled music creates the impression that music is being played outside the dacha, which produces an incredible illusion of space. This technique is used again to great effect during the final Act in the registry office, when Lapshina reappears in her unassuming but hilarious role as registrar.

Sasha’s drink-fuelled birthday party at the Lebedevs’

The end of the party scene highlights Kulyabin’s commitment to retaining elements of Chekhov’s signature black humour. Ivanov and Sasha find themselves alone in the dacha. Ivanov explodes into a monologue filled with self-hatred, expressing his regret that he has become a superfluous man who cannot return his wife’s love. In a frenzy, Sasha declares her love for him and Ivanov reaches the wild conclusion that she is his joy and the solution to all his problems. They end up kissing. A terrible silence follows when Anna arrives at the dacha to join the party and catches them in the act. Ivanov has clearly lost every shred of respect for himself and others: he shamelessly rips the foil off the tray of food Anna has brought, and tucks in.

Nikolai Ivanov and Sasha during the birthday party scene

Ivanov explodes into a monologue filled with self-hatred, expressing his regret that he has become a superfluous man who cannot return his wife’s love. In a frenzy, Sasha declares her love for him and Ivanov reaches the wild conclusion that she is his joy and the solution to all his problems. They end up kissing. A terrible silence follows when Anna arrives at the dacha to join the party and catches them in the act. Ivanov has clearly lost every shred of respect for himself and others: he shamelessly rips the foil off the tray of food Anna has brought, and tucks in.

The office scene in Act Three is far darker than the dacha scene. Ivanov launches into more self-deprecating monologues, hurls a plate to the floor and shouts at Anna’s doctor, who arrives to tell Ivanov that he should treat Anna better. Ivanov retorts that the doctor knows nothing of people. We resent Ivanov’s treatment of those around him, but we cannot help but empathise with a man who has been crushed by the heavy weight of his own uncontrollable feelings. We also empathise with Sasha’s attempt to explain why she wishes to be with him: she wants proactive love and prefers a failure to a happy, flawless man. Unsurprisingly, it is only after a shouting match that the two finally embrace. Of course, the scene would not be complete without a touch of humour. Pavel Lebedev arrives and begs Ivanov to pay his debts back to Zinaida Lebedev, but quickly succumbs to the strength of their friendship and slyly tries to hand Ivanov a large sum of money. He instructs Ivanov to give it to Zinaida without mentioning where he found it. Ivanov bitterly turns down the offer.

Sasha and Ivanov embrace after some angry outbursts in his office

Act Four is set a year or so later, after Anna’s death. Sasha and Ivanov have decided to marry, and are waiting in the registry office. Anna’s presence still looms in the air; an owl shaped balloon hovers above them in the corner of the room. It emerges that nobody has come to terms with the idea of their marriage. Everyone’s doubts, cries and sobs unite in a hysterical ensemble: Ivanov’s uncle breaks down as he remembers Anna; Zinaida simply sobs into her hands; Pavel tries to convince Sasha that Ivanov is not right for her; the doctor is convinced that Ivanov simply wants to marry to escape his debts. Sasha is torn between wishing to fulfil her desire to help Ivanov feel understood, and accepting that this isn’t proactive love, it’s something to be tackled only by ‘martyrs’. The performance ends with a striking image of Ivanov, alone on the stage, sat with his back to the audience, fainted on a chair and casting a large shadow. While Ivanov shoots himself in Chekhov’s original, the ending in Kulyabin’s production is ambiguous.

The Theatre of Nations’ production of Ivanov is at once a comic spectacular and a loyal homage to the poetry of Chekhov’s original. It asks us to consider what we value in our personal lives, and flags the danger of forgetting to cherish and forgive ourselves. In this unmistakably modern production, Kulyabin cleverly highlights the universal nature of Chekhov’s work. The play deals with timeless themes that will doubtless still be discussed and adapted for the stage far into the future.