There’s something of the rehearsal room in Iona McLeish’s design for Sons Without Fathers. Around a central ‘performance’ space in the Belgrade’s thrust space, old decaying chairs, cupboards groaning with props and the detritus of life lay scattered. We are supposed to be in a school, hinted at by the lockers and equipment, but the way in which our protagonists enter in the opening moments feels akin to a day making theatre. This feels right for a play which, under Helena Kaut-Howson’s direction, becomes about the performance of one man and its effect on those around him. Unfortunately, however, this production does feel like it still belongs in the rehearsal room, remaining unpolished and struggling to work out what exactly it’s trying to say.
Chekhov’s Platonov, his first full length play, is rarely performed, and it’s not hard to see why. In this play, the young playwright struggles to find his voice and has a vast array of storylines overlapping, whilst all the vices of Chekhovian writing are yet to be ironed out. Kaut-Howson’s adaptation updates the text and tightens it, so that we focus solely on the protagonist and his relationships with the many women around him in an attempt to make comment on disaffected youth, but it remains sprawling and stilted.
The schoolteacher Platonov (Jack Laskey), though married to Sasha (Amy McAlliser), struggles to remain faithful to his wife due to something which makes surrounding women fall in love with him. A persistent nihilism then means he finds it impossible to turn down these advances and in the process means that, even with modern colloquialisms Kaut-Howson’s production can never break away from an inherent misogyny in the play. Like most Chekhov, the lines between comedy and tragedy are blurred, though we are here given a taster of each without being able to relish either. In the final scene, for example, a line is trod between tragedy and farce, but without the conviction of either it’s difficult to know where we should stand.
There are three strong moments in the piece which demonstrate a directorial flair, and it’s a shame there aren’t more of them. At one point, Sasha, pained at discovering the nature of her husband’s affairs, throws herself in front of a train, rendered here through the use simply of smoke, light and sound (Paul Bull), thus creating a strong visual image with emotional punch. Later, it begins to rain, shown not only through projections onto McLeish’s aluminium, rusting set but also through backlit, dripping water spied through a doorway suspended in the metal. And perhaps the strongest image in the piece comes at the end, as Platonov’s body is covered in newspapers by his brother-in-law. It’s a simple, slightly baffling image, yet it works. It’s only a shame that we don’t see this boldness elsewhere in the piece.
Kaut-Howson manages, on the whole, to find solid performances in her ensemble, but none ever truly finds the spirit of the play. Along with McAllister, Marianna Oldham and Susie Trayling go some way to foiling Platonov, but collectively don’t pack enough of a punch to throw this narrative off in the way they do, especially seeing as Laskey’s protagonist, though energetic and full of flair, lacks nuance and intrigue. Without a doubt, Simon Scardifield gives the stand-out performance of the evening as brother-in-law and useless doctor Nikolai, especially when given freedom to be preposterous in his drunk scenes.
But my main problem with Sons Without Fathers remains the fact that our protagonist feels utterly unlikeable. He feels barely any remorse about his slew of affairs and comes across as arrogant, thus making his fate pretty underwhelming. Kaut-Howson and her team are clearly trying to demonstrate that these are the actions of a generation that feels useless, and though I don’t disagree that being disaffected can result in misery, Chekhov here seems to be pushing things slightly too far. Even then, this production fails to really acknowledge the wider socio-economic situations of these characters which, when coupled with the fact that it struggles to build momentum and find its tone, means it never truly shakes those shaky rehearsal-room moments of the opening scene.