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Ivanov, produced by the Hungarian Katona Jozef Theatre, is a perfect example of the Festival achieving one of its main purposes. For one month the tyranny of distance does not prohibit seminal international work from touring these shores.
For those who find the plethora of theatre performances in this year’s Sydney Festival a little too daunting, the question always arrises of what is the most important show to see. In comparison with the other theatrical marathons on offer, Ivanov appears to be a brief affair, clocking in at a measly three hours. But within this otherwise conventional length of time audiences will be treated to one of the most assured and enjoyable performances on offer during this year’s festival, and indeed a style of performance seldom seen in Sydney theatres. Ivanov, produced by the Hungarian Katona Jozef Theatre, is a perfect example of the Festival achieving one of its main purposes. For one month the tyranny of distance does not prohibit seminal international work from touring these shores. Ivanov exhibits a style of theatre yet to be produced by any of the major theatre companies in Sydney, due to the structure of the company presenting the work and the style of direction. When comparing the grace of tone and inflection with any recent Australian work, the lack of pretence coupled with the rigour of its creative thought is disarming. The story of Ivanov, a morose landowner who seems incapable of showing compassion or love to his dying wife, strikes a tender nerve with a modern audience all too familiar with depression and equally unsure about how to deal with or integrate those who suffer into their society. No one really understands Ivanov, but many of the characters are willing to diagnose him, depose him or disdain him. Only in Sacha, the small community’s breath of fresh air does he find someone who may comprehend him enough to nurse him back to health, but by the tumultuous conclusion it is obvious that compassion does not necessarily equal understanding for the man who is equal parts self loathing and self deception. “I wanted active love” Sacha despairs, “but this is martyrdom.” The twenty three person cast perfectly emulates the small community of characters who constantly live in each others pockets, borrow money from each other, and in Ivanov’s case, suffer the whispered accusations and suspicions of the town gossips. It becomes instantly clear that these actors are a community with the same bonds of history and shared experience of the characters they present. This is theatre as it cannot be made in Australia, from a tightly knit group of performers with an intimate knowledge of each other and a shared understanding of the reality they are presenting and indeed, how it is being presented. The fluidity and seamless musicality of Ivanov stems from the ensemble’s ability to speak the same language. Of course, this extends to something more metaphysical than the Hungarian of the play’s delivery. If this shared language exists in the community then it is immeasurably easier for the actors to slip into the reality of the world they are presenting. Often in the rehearsal process and too often in performance there can be as many ideas about the story being told as there are actors present. What this performance represents is the capacity of an ensemble of actors to fit in and manoeuvre deftly with the contours of their colleague’s ideas and bodies. This relaxed and fertile environment has produced an ensemble of actors comfortable enough to play the circumstances of the text and not the lines. Of course, a script tells us what the character says and often what they think but there are no clues as to how these words floating in space are to be infused with life and performed in a specific place. In this case, it is a run down storeroom set in the late sixties that becomes the social framework for Chekov’s work. Beyond that, however, lives Tamás Ascher’s vibrant direction that understands that most often in life, people are talking about one thing and doing something completely different. When musing about life, death and everything in between we may well be standing naked except for brown leather shoes, socks and a singlet. Grounding Chekov’s lofty ideas and poeticism with the dull physical reality of country life is what makes this performance radiate attraction. One actor’s response to some life changing news at the end of the third act is worth the price of admission alone. In a Festival season with so many tempting offers it may be easy to overlook the little known company from a country far away. Ivanov is an example of theatre at its best, the perfect answer to claims of the irrelevancy of naturalism. Although the actors are speaking multiple languages we may not understand, Sydney audiences would benefit greatly from watching this ensemble talk. Ivanov ran as part of Sydney Festival until 27 January.

Tim Spencer

Wednesday 28 January, 2009

About the author

Tim Spencer is a Sydney based actor and writer. @timothy_spencer