Tragedy sped up

Belvoir, September 23

Nikolai Ivanov sits on a sofa looking desolate as the Lebedevs’ party swirls around him. He’s heading towards 40, he has no money, his relations give him grief, he’s given up on his marriage and he’s drawn to a girl half his age. Oh, and his wife is dying and her doctor blames him for hastening things. Naturally this is a comedy.

As Ivanov (Ewen Leslie) tells Sasha (Airlie Dodds), the young woman who passionately and naively wants to save him from himself, “comedy is tragedy sped up”. True, he’s a wildly self-dramatising man but that doesn’t detract from the truth of what he’s saying. Everyone in this backwater is going hell for leather, trying to extract some purpose and meaning from life while flailing around and behaving ridiculously. It’s just that Ivanov’s skin is much thinner than everyone else’s and his capacity for self-disgust – well-earned, it must be said – much greater.

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Director and adapter Eamon Flack sets Ivanov, the playwright’s first completed full-length play, in something that resembles contemporary Russia, what with the photo of Vladimir Putin on the wall, but it’s also very much a version of Australia today. Not a flattering one, it must be said, but punchy and provocative. What do we value in life, what do we have to offer and does any of it matter anyway?

While Ivanov wrestles with his demons, family and friends take a less resistant line. His uncle Matvei Shabelsky (John Bell) could potentially be persuaded to marry widow Marfa Babakina (Blazey Best) in an exchange of valuables: access to his American passport for her; access to her pig-based fortune for him. Sasha’s brittle, try-hard mother, Zinaida Lebedev (Helen Thomson), is no pushover in the money-lending business and places a lot of store by appearances. Pavel Lebedev (John Howard) just goes along with whatever his wife wants. It’s easier.

Ivanov’s cousin Misha Borkin (Fayssal Bazzi) has flexible morals and is a buffoon likeable in limited doses. Even Sasha, in whose shining youth one can see some tiny hope for the future, babbles on about “active love”, a label to rival “conscious uncoupling” as a way of describing the complexities of intimacy.

They do little more than pontificate about money and politics, talk themselves up, gossip cruelly, sing a few songs and get a skin full should the occasion merit. Their uselessness is grotesque and very, very funny. The only people somewhat spared are Ivanov’s wife Anna (Zahra Newman), an intriguing woman “from another country” who shares outsider status with Doctor Yevgeny Lvov (Yalin Ozucelik), who is Turkish. Covertly (Anna) and overtly (Lvov) their judgment hangs over the group. It’s a big cast and a wonderful one, not forgetting the Lebedevs’ hired help, Gabriella, played by Belvoir assistant stage manager Mel Dyer in a performance of pure comedy gold.

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Leslie’s Ivanov is, of course, insanely attractive despite the flaws he describes so vividly and exhaustively and he is, of course, doomed. He goes in for some meta-theatrical posturing about Hamlet, which goes down exceptionally well given Leslie’s history with the Dane (Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, Belvoir in 2013), and seems to be very much in love with the idea of being the lost soul. Ivanov is a man of poses – the thwarted intellectual, the failed man of action – but Leslie also makes one see the horror of such emptiness as well as its absurdity. “I am in disgrace with myself,” he says, and nothing could be more despairing. He stands outside himself, can see what he is and can do nothing to alter his course.

Needless to say Flack doesn’t allow a drop of sentimentality to intrude. Chekov tried a couple of endings for the play and Flack chooses the one that shows our man as the plaything of fate rather than creator of his own destiny. The joke’s on him.

Ivanov ends on November 1.

Sydney Opera House, February 28

IN the guise of a sweet and playful romance, As You Like It drives its characters (and ourselves) to seek answers to life’s deepest questions. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my rightful place?

As the story begins the world is in disarray. A ruler has been usurped, an arrogant man refuses to fulfil his responsibilities towards his younger brother and a woman, Rosalind, is wrongfully banished from home. She escapes to the Forest of Arden where all is made well. Wrong-doers repent of their sins, lovers find their right match and order is restored.

Taking on the guise of a boy, Ganymede, Rosalind is the prime mover of events; the director, if you will, as well as a player in the comic roundelay.

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

Peter Evans’s production for Bell Shakespeare skips rather too lightly through the thickets. The suggestion of a 1950s setting gives an opportunity for some very pretty frocks (by Kate Aubrey-Dunn) and finger-snapping tunes (Kelly Ryall) for the songs but confers no great insights. Michael Hankin’s set design – saggy canvas backdrop and a “forest” of flowers on hanging ropes – is almost perverse in its refusal to make theatrical magic. Jaques famously describes all the world as a stage, but in this As You Like It all the world appears to be gathered backstage.

And yet, there is, in Zahra Newman’s Rosalind, a shining tribute to powerful women that is extraordinarily potent in the light of today’s politics. She is an acute thinker, has courage, resourcefulness and is a person of action in thought and deed. Newman bounces about the stage with enlivening vim and vigour. She makes things happen.

Only the most cursory nod is made to her assumption of a male persona as Evans gives a wide berth to contemporary gender politics. Newman wears a suit that does nothing to disguise her womanliness. It’s a costume that allows her to exert control.

There are losses, and some may find them too great. Evans makes nothing of the difference in temperament and style of the rustic folk in the Forest of Arden and the escapees from court and Shakespeare’s boy-girl, girl-boy confusions are excised along with the attendant laughter and inherent complexity. But the gain is in the fierce concentration on Rosalind as a woman of wit and substance who will lead us to the heart of the matter as others flail about blindly or, in the case of John Bell’s brilliantly dry Jaques – an accountant type with notebook and pencil – privilege thinking over feeling.

It’s hard to believe it is 25 years since Bell founded his company, and that this is his last year as its leader (well, for the last little while co-artistic director with Evans). His command of the stage remains undimmed. There are few more delightful lines in As You Like It than Jaques’s “Let’s meet as little as we can,” which got a huge laugh. It reminded me of the best cartoon in the world, by Bob Mankoff for The New Yorker, in which a businessmen on a phone says in response to someone seeking to get into his diary: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never – is never good for you?”

Evans’s cast of 11 is attractive and funny (well, Gareth Davies finds it hard to make Touchstone amusing but he’s not Robinson Crusoe in that). Charlie Garber’s Orlando had women at the matinee I attended audibly sighing in sympathy with him and what a treat to see Tony Taylor (doubling Adam and Corin) back on stage.

Overwhelmingly, though, it’s Newman’s show.

Ends March 28. Canberra, April 7-18; Melbourne, April 23-May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 3.