Fathers and Sons, Donmar Warehouse – Or what happens when you are 20 and think you will change the world

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This 1987 adaptation by Brian Friel’s of Ivan Turgenev’s 1862 Russian novel has all the charm of a Chekov evening.  We are yet again in a remote provincial dacha where Nikolai Kirsanov, a Russian landowner, awaits the return home of his prodigal son who his studying at university in St Petersburg.

Arkady arrives with his friend Yevgeny Bazarov who quickly disrupts the family gathering by asserting his nihilistic views of the world where human existence does not have meaning, purpose or value. He rudely dismisses what he considers to be useless, and in that category he includes art, beauty and romance. He is quick to point out that love does not exist and that taking your pleasure is the only relevant experience to pursue with women. Of course from that point on, we all know what will happen to Bazarov.

Joshua James as Arkady and Seth Numrich as Bazarov in Fathers and Sons

Joshua James as Arkady and Seth Numrich as Bazarov in Fathers and Sons

Pavel, Nikolai’s brother and Arkady’s uncle, takes an immediate dislike to the young man, as he believes in the aristocratic traditions of old with his dandy looks and penchant for French and English culture. Each man represents the symbol of the struggle between the “fathers” of old Russia, with their liberal ways, and their nihilist “sons”, representing the rising new Russia.

Over the space of the evening, the two young men crisscross the countryside visiting family and Madame Anna Odintsova, a young widow and her younger sister, Katya. Being a Russian play, you know that things won’t end well. Obviously much of the original Turgenev story cannot make it on stage but I must admit to finding the entire evening a little perplexing as if too many strands of the book had been brought to our attention but none had been allowed to develop fully.

Bazarov’s relationship with Arkady is never fully explained. They both fall in love but we never really understand why, except that it contradicts their earlier beliefs. Madame Odintsova’s attitude to Bazarov is sketchy at best. Nikolai’s bumbling management of his estate is never really explored nor his relationship with Fenchka, his mistress and the daughter of his old housekeeper. The duel between Bazarov and Pavel does not lead to a real confrontation of either their diverging political views or love interests. The last scene brings us back to the Kirsanov home where Arkady, distraught after his friend’s death, asserts his decision that he is meant to carry on his friend’s revolutionary ideals but simultaneously takes on the running of his father’s feudal estate. Are you confused by now? Because I am.

Brian Friel has long been attracted by the impact of a character who is not what he purports to be. He has played with the deceiver, the impostor and the exiled character who is dissociated from himself, his surroundings or even his family. In Bazarov, it seems that he has found such a character. He is a young revolutionary whose ideals have not yet been tested by real life but while the character might be interesting, the play never really takes off.

That being said, Lyndsey Turner directs this Donmar Warehouse production adroitly and the acting from the entire and very large cast is consistently good. Anthony Calf is a charming and convincing, if ineffective, landowner. Caoilfhionn Dunne, who plays Fenichka, is both deferential and loving. Tim McMullan is excellent as Pavel, full of mannerism and bon mots. Joshua James as Arkady is all passion with not much substance. Seth Numrich (fresh from his success in the Old Vic’s Sweet Bird of Youth) is excellent as the handsome revolutionary. Elaine Cassidy was good as the widow Anna Odintsova. Susan Engel, as Princess Olga, has some of the best lines, which she delivers with perfect timing. Karl Johnson was wonderful as Bazarov’s father while Lindy Whiteford was convincing as his admiring mother driven to madness. Finally, David Fielder, Jack McMullen, Siobhan McSweeney, Phoebe Sparrow all added to a fantastic ensemble piece. The design by Rob Howell is all distressed wood and fall from earlier glories, capturing beautifully the essence of Russia mid 19th century.