This feels like familiar territory: nineteenth-century Russian landed gentry making a bit of a mess of their love lives as their estates slowly slide into ruin and massive social change lurks threateningly in the background. However, this time it’s not a Chekhov play, or even Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, but a loose adaptation of the latter’s classic 1862 novel Fathers and Sons by Irish playwright Brian Friel. First staged at the National Theatre in 1987, this beautifully balanced tragicomedy captures the absurdity of the protagonists’ personal relationships with a sharp political edge.
Having graduated from St Petersburg University, Arkady returns to his country home with fellow student Bazarov, whose confrontational nihilist ideas he has swallowed wholesale. This leads to tensions with his well-meaning but bumbling widower father Nikolai and especially his uncle Pavel, a dandy with old-school values of gentlemanly conduct. Arkady also visits Bazarov at his more modest home, where to his friend’s embarrassment he tells his astonished but delighted parents who have not seen him for three years what a brilliant scholar their son is. The tone shifts from humorous to serious as romantic entanglements go wrong, and darkens further as first a duel and then a typhoid epidemic rear their ugly heads.
Friel’s sensitive engagement with nineteenth-century Russian drama and literature (having both adapted several works by Turgenev and Chekhov and also been influenced by them in his own plays) shines through in the way he evokes the work’s subtly shifting moods. The theme of intergenerational conflict, with an ageing status quo challenged by youthful radical politics, is set against a backdrop of the impending abolition of serfdom.
Director Lyndsey Turner brings out the essential humanity of this ensemble piece, with each character a fully-fledged individual with their own preoccupations, while Rob Howell’s rustic wooden-planked design has weeds sprouting up in the gaps and James Farncombe’s elegiac lighting shimmering through the slats.
Seth Numrich gives an intense, charismatic performance as the arrogant but contradictory Bazarov, an uncompromising intellectual whose scientific rationalism masks deep emotional needs. Joshua James is also excellent as the naïve, impressionable Arkady, putting male friendship at the heart of the play. Anthony Calf makes an amusingly shambolic Nikolai, who has recently fathered a child with a housemaid and is being ripped off by the peasants to whom he has given land. Tim McMullan is entertainingly maverick as the ‘beau de Cologne’ Pavel, a cultured Europhile with a melancholic romantic past.
Caoilfhionn Dunne is the housemaid unsure of her status, Elaine Cassidy a self-contained wealthy widow and Phoebe Sparrow her more carefree, flirtatious younger sister. Karl Johnson, a Latin-quoting, anecdotal doctor, and his homely wife Lindy Whiteford are moving as Bazarov’s loving but neglected parents, while Susan Engel is a wickedly funny aristocrat who lives in her own barmy old world detached from the changing reality around her.