Writer: Brian Friel (from the novel by Ivan Turgenev)
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Imagine you could remake society, not just revolutionise it, but entirely remake it from scratch; remove every structure, every institution, every person and every meaning that exists and start anew. This belief, known as nihilism, is introduced into the rural home of the Kirsanov family by Arkady returning from university in St Petersburg with his friend Bazarov in tow. Initially committed to the cause, Arkady wavers in his new beliefs with the more grounded nature of life at home, causing a rift with his friend.
This production clearly divides into two quite distinct acts – the first is more philosophical, exploring the views of the young students and allowing Bazarov to unpack his opinions in a variety of conversations, while the second delivers an emotional punch as events unfold. Seth Numrich skilfully brings the contradictions in Bazarov’s character to light; despite his fanatical political beliefs the audience still feels for all his surety that he is somehow naïve. This is particularly well expressed in a scene with his parents where he treats them with distain despite his clear love for them, and in the expression of romantic love for Anna, which goes against all his principles.
Although many of the other characters do not share Barzarov’s view, he is admired by them, and the production nicely presents him as the catalyst to explore the various forms of love in the play. Arkady, well played by Joshua James, worships his friend and takes on his beliefs in order to draw them closer, but cannot sustain them outside the university bubble. The concluding moments when Arkady, full of remorse, vows to resurrect them are quite touching. Fathers and Sons is also packed with other great performances. Tim McMullan as Arkady’s uncle Pavel, a dandy known as ‘the tailor’s dummy’ by the servants, begins as a lightly comic character straight out of Oscar Wilde, but the encounter with Bazarov reveals his disappointments, explaining his escape into gothic literature and forms of polite behaviour. Karl Johnson is also excellent as Bazarov’s bumbling but devoted father who stands out in a very moving scene during the second act.
Designer Rob Howell’s theme of shabby gentility is simple enough to ensure swift changes of scene between the various homes, while evoking a taste of their lifestyles. The scene changes are well managed, pausing the action for you to reflect on the scene while setting for the next one, helping to maintain a decent pace. This bodes well for Lyndsey Turner’s much anticipated 2015 production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican.
19th Century Russian drama can often be hard work and difficult to fathom, but this adaptation by Brian Friel is full of interesting social and philosophical questions, as well as telling a good story that’s really quite funny. Perhaps it feels a little inconclusive and the decision to have a major plot twist occur offstage deprives it of some dramatic potential, but this is a production that’s full of intelligent debate about the value and purpose of society, and well worth seeing for a set of strong performances.
Photo: Johan Persson | Runs until 26th July