Ivanov and Madame deSade

Kenneth Branagh, as well as appearing on stage, is also Artistic Associate of the Donmar West End Season 08/09, of which Ivanov is a part.

Ivanov Gina McKee Kenneth Branagh
Gina McKee/Kenneth Branagh

It’s Chekhov, so it’s not laugh a minute, actually it’s not even laugh a half hour. But you probably know that when you buy the ticket. It is however very well acted. Good cast, slick direction with a well designed stage.

There’s a lot of star led plays around at the moment. Some justified, some no doubt bolstering ticket sales with celebrity. With Branagh (as we’re want to call him) you get the full package. He is a class act, yes this makes it hard for everyone else on the stage but he does own it. It’s a play about failure and regret, the dashing of aspiration against situation and folly. Russia is changing and no one can ignore the implications.

It’s not top of my list of plays to see again but I’d not seen a lot of Chekhov (The Three Sisters years ago) so wanted to try and get to grips with it. Is it as dystopian and grim as I’d been warned? Actually no. There are moments of comedy, confusion and light and its not so depressing that the interval bar was staffed by The Samaritans, it’s just grim and leaves you without a comfortable resolution.

Yes I know its deep, intellectual, thoughtful, provoking (yes the Jewish issue is) but it’s just so very bleak.

Having seen him in action I’m disappointed that Ken won’t be sticking around to direct Jude Law in Hamlet. His commitments to directing Thor for Marvel sadly meant that wasn’t possible. I’ve seen some of the pre-production and concept work for Thor so I can’t deny I’m not looking forward to that. Ken’s immersive and enthusiastic approach to all art, including a mere comic book has been well appreciated and whets the appetite of this fan boy at least.

The next in the Donmar’s season is Madame de Sade.

Madame de Sade
Pike, Barber and Dench in full rustle and bustle

There’s a lot to be glad about this before I even got into the theatre. Dame Judy Dench (imperious, tick), Rosamund Pike (corruptable, tick), Frances Barber (salacious, tick). This is a strong and very talented all female cast. Most people have a fair idea about the life and times of the Marquis de Sade (no don’t expect pictures, and don’t google that at work either!) but the essential conceit of the play is the experiences and journeys of the women in his life – and the effects of his machinations, excesses and indulgences upon them. The Marquis is never seen though we’re left in no doubt as to what he gets up to. The acting is delicate, sassy, precise and measured. These aren’t the sort of actresses to ever dial it in from home.

It’s a translation from a Japanese play and to my goldfish attention span some of the passages are way too long. The dresses rustle, the bodices heave and the fans flutter. Ok so you can’t beat a talented british actress in a tight corset (oh make your own jokes then). The set is static and sparse but serves adequately. Could they have done more with the central concept? Yes, its melodramatic in places but thats the script not the acting. There are some things that the script never justifies or carries off to satisfaction. I wonder what a different translation with a braver scalpel and more attitude would have given us. The ladies are luminous, each different in their aspect and character. A film might have given a better result, there are many flashbacks and descriptions that would be a delight to flesh out (ahem).

After the performance I was passing the stage door, there was a large crowd waiting for the cast to decamp and sign autographs etc. Both Rosamund Pike and Judy Dench were generous, patient and charming. Yes I know those are the people that pay their salaries etc but it was impressive and heartening to see a genuine connection between actors and fans. Even if some passing blokes could only muster “Hey look it’s M…”

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