As the heavy chords build in tragic volume, the curtains part, revealing a vast landscape of empty fields lit by a lowering sun.  A row of broken fence posts, like derelict pilings on a beach, occupy the middle distance.  A man, about 40, bare-headed and wearing the open neck shirt, tattered waistcoat and baggy sand-coloured trousers of an intellectual farmer – an incomer – stares out, his face half lit by the sun.   He picks up some chaff,  and in a gesture of despair tosses it away.   He pulls a book from his pocket, sits on a stump and reads.  The music dies away.  A bird sings. 


Another person enters.  A stocky, bald headed man, dressed in a tweed hunting suit.    He cradles a shot gun in the crook of his right arm, a game bag hangs from his shoulder.  He tiptoes up to his unsuspecting partner,  a mischievous smile spreading across his rubicund face, and discharges his weapon.     


The problem is that people can’t leave Ivanov alone.  Borkin, his partner, saddled to a man who has lost motivation, tries to shock him into action, enthuse him with his ideas.  The doctor, another idealist, wants to find the better man inside.  His old friend Lebedev, offers him money.  Anna, his wife, and Sasha, his friends daughter, want to rescue him with their love.  But trying to rescue Ivanov from his disillusion is like trying to feed an anorectic, or offer a hotel room to an artist in a garret.  The more people try to help, the more miserable he becomes.  Their well meaning kindness depletes him of any residual autonomy and meaning.  Ivanov is the only person who can save himself. 


Ivanov was Anton Chekhov’s first major play.  It was written in 1887, when he was just 27, and training to be a doctor.  He was never happy with it and revised it at least once.  The production at the Royal Court has been revised yet again, this time by Tom Stoppard. 


It is a play about disillusion and despair.  Nikolei Ivanov is not just in debt, he has not just fallen out of love, he has lost the meaning and the purpose in his life.  He is in despair.  He was once such an idealist.  He went to the university. He had progressive ideas.  He was going to revolutionise farming, reorganise the ancient feudal system of labour, change things.  And now, after 10 years later, and in his early forties, he has been defeated.  But the land was relentless, hard, unforgiving.  Its vastness, its sheer inertia, drained his spirit.  The crops failed again, he got into debt. He became too tired to try any more.  He lost hope.  Kenneth Branagh plays Ivanov with consummate insight.  He brings us right up to the crumbling edge of despair without sliding off  into melodrama. 


Falling in love with Anna might have rescued Nikolei from his creeping disillusion.  Anna believed in him.  Infected with his enthusiasm,  she left her culture, lost connection with her parents to marry Ivanov and join him in his vision.  She continued to believe in him when he was losing belief in himself,  but lacking the diversion of new life that children might have brought, she has become an effete, fragile shadow of herself, slowly dying of tuberculosis.  Ivanov has also become sick;   sick of farming, sick of Anna, sick of himself.  Bored by his work, accused by his wife’s illness and needing to escape the oppression of his home, he spends his evenings at his friend’s house, drinking, playing cards and flirting, but it is like an addiction – the more he does it, the more he despises himself.   


Ivanov is a study in destructive narcissism. He wallows in self pity.  He has lost the grandiose meanings in his life and he has nothing left.  So like an unhappy child, he mopes around infecting everybody with his misery.  But he is an attractive man – people are drawn to him.  Sasha, young and romantic, needing to escape the stifling confines of an unhappy provincial home, plans to save Ivanov from himself.  She explains how some women find meaning in life by saving an unhappy man in the futile expectation they will gain their love and gratitude.  But is Sasha too much like Ivanov – a partner in depression.  Does she also find some perverse meaning in misery?   


Ivanov does not need rescue; he needs to be helped to discover his own salvation.  His friends’ well meaning interventions merely trap him in the web of his own self disgust and the more he wriggles the more he is entrapped.  The end is inevitable.  It was clear by the interval that this play would not end well.  It doesn’t, Anna dies, Ivanov agrees to marry Sasha but on the day of the wedding, trapped on all sides, he shoots himself. 


I wonder what provoked Anton Chekhov to write such a dark play about disillusion.  Was he also becoming ground down with the overwhelming sickness and misery he witnessed everyday as a doctor in provincial Russia.  Did he disocover in writing short stories and plays, a creative escape from his own boredom?  Disillusion is layered heavily in this production.  Although it centres around Ivanov’s predicament,  other characters add resonance.  Lebedev has sold his soul by marrying a rich woman, he doesn’t love.  The old Count refuses the temptation to do the same by trading his title for cash.  The young doctor is furious with Ivanov for destroying his faith in human nature.  Borkin is perhaps the only character who refuses to let go of his grand ideas,  but he cuts a rather ludicrous figure in Stoppard’s translation.      


If we accept that men tend more to inhabit a world of ideas and ambition,  Ivanov’s might be seen as a masculine route to disillusion and misery.  Relationships are more important to women and therefore their disillusion is more likely to be with people rather than ideas.  Anna went into decline when she no longer believed in the love of her husband, whereas Sasha’s albeit unrequited love for Ivanov was sufficient motivation for personal development. 


Although Ivanov is a period drama set in the dying years of the Tsarist Russia, its message is perhaps more relevant to our current age.   Depression, the commonest illness in western countries, is not so much a disease of the brain of even a specific mental disorder, it is a depletion of meaning or purpose, a weariness of life.  Our narcissistic culture encourages enormous expectations, but unless one can find the self belief to realise the opportunities, the sense of failure can be quite devastating.  The person sitting behind me commented loudly that all Ivanov needed was a good dose of prozac.  I doubt that would have done the trick. 


Ivanov is playing at the newly refurbished Wyndham’s Theatre until November.  Go and see it.