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Five-star Branagh wows West End

18 September 08 10:22 GMT

By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Kenneth Branagh has received rave reviews for his performance in a new staging of Chekhov's early play Ivanov in London's West End.

The actor won a thunderous ovation on Wednesday from a first-night audience that included Dame Judi Dench and comedian Ben Elton.

"Performance of the year? Without a doubt," writes the Daily Mail's Quentin Letts. "He may make it look easy but this is a world-class talent."

Michael Grandage's production, the first of four productions that the Donmar Warehouse is mounting at the larger Wyndham's theatre, also drew five-star reviews from the Guardian and Independent.

According to the Independent's Paul Taylor, the play "could scarcely be a more auspicious launch" for the year-long venture.

"Everything about the production is first-rate," agreed the Guardian's Michael Billington, who singled out a "great moment" when Branagh's character reacts emotionally to a friend's act of charity.

'Blighted beauty'

The moment, though, was slightly diminished on Wednesday night thanks to a patron's mobile phone ringing inopportunely.

Adapted by Sir Tom Stoppard, Anton Chekhov's 1887 play tells of a disillusioned landowner with crippling debts and a wife suffering from tuberculosis.

Beset by impotent despair and suicidal angst, he is unable to resist the advances of a young heiress besotted with him.

The play includes numerous references and allusions to Shakespeare's Hamlet, which Branagh will direct next year as part of the Wyndham's season.

As Charles Spencer points out in the Daily Telegraph, the actor's performance also contains elements of the vituperative Jimmy Porter in John Osborne's Look Back in Anger.

"His cruelty, his weariness and his self-disgust are all unsparingly caught," wrote the Telegraph's theatre critic.

'Glumly comic'

"Yet Branagh also suggests the blighted beauty in the character that makes two women love him."

Comparing the Belfast-born actor to previous Ivanovs including Sir Derek Jacobi and Ralph Fiennes, The Times' Benedict Nightingale says he brings an "articulate melancholy" to Stoppard's "punchy, witty" translation.

The end result, he continues, is "so glumly comic you're left wondering how Ivanov could ever have been dismissed as minor Chekhov".

Branagh was last seen on the London stage playing the title role in David Mamet's play Edmond at the National Theatre in 2003.

The 47-year-old previously worked with Grandage in a 2002 production of Shakespeare's Richard III, at the Sheffield Crucible.

Ticket prices are being kept low at the Wyndham's in an attempt to challenge the current dominance of musicals in London's Theatreland.

"We all know it is expensive to go to the theatre so the more affordable the better," says Branagh in an interview published in the Ivanov programme.

According to the box office, though, tickets are selling fast with only a handful available over the next month.

Ivanov runs at the Wyndham's Theatre until 29 November.

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