Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Fathers and Sons

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Fathers and Sons

Article excerpt

Credit: Lloyd Evans

Fathers and Sons

Donmar, until 26 July

Fans of Chekhov have to endure both feast and famine. Feast because his works are revived everywhere. Famine because he concentrated all his riches in just four great plays that grow stale with repetition. For fresh nourishment we turn to Brian Friel, whose stage adaptations of the short stories go some way to appease our hunger. In 1987, Friel applied his skills to Fathers and Sons , by Turgenev, which is now revived at the Donmar.

The magical charm of a Russian estate is superbly conjured by Rob Howell's set. Slatted timbers and peeling paintwork. Golden shafts of sunlight falling on crimson rugs and scattered wicker baskets. The story concerns two chums, Arkady, a philosophy graduate, and Bazarov, the star of the university who has won every prize available and has become the anointed leader of a dangerous revolutionary group, the Nihilists. Arkady invites Bazarov to spend the summer with his family and an emotional earthquake follows.

Unexpected romances pull the pals in different directions. Their harsh and unfeeling philosophy takes a bit of a kicking as well. Arkady melts into the arms of a prim little bourgeois madam while Bazarov tries to uphold his austere principles while seducing Anna, an icy millionairess. Turgenev's world outlook is far less whimsical than Chekhov's, and a lot more politically astute. Bazarov is in deadly earnest when he calls for the destruction of everything in Russia and the creation of a new society so radical that even words will have new meanings. This great speech has a wonderful dramatic duality. First, there's Bazarov's immediate purpose (concealed even from himself), which is to dazzle Anna with his butch and potent rhetoric. Secondly, there's the Stalinist subtext, which chills the blood of today's spectators because we know that these fanciful theories, elaborated by idealists on dreamy summer lawns, can lead to decades of war, and to mountains of corpses. This is irony in its true sense: the 'blindness' of a character who lacks the foreknowledge of his observers.

There are so many virtues in this show that it's hard to know where to start. Anna is played with cool and watchful detachment by the lovely Elaine Cassidy. Joshua James, as Arkady, is a striking newcomer. With his large, widely spaced eyes, and his lanky stoop, he has an Audenesque air of distracted romanticism. …

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