Robert Tanitch reviews Fathers and Sons at Donmar Theatre, London WC2
Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883), precursor to Anton Chekhov, always wanted to reproduce the reality of life correctly. So Brian Friel’s long affinity with Chekhov’s plays and short stories, stands him in good stead in his adaptation of Turgenev’s great Russian novel for the stage.
Lindsey Turner’s revival, well-cast and beautifully designed by Rob Howell, is very enjoyable The play now seems so much better than it did at the National in 1987.
Fathers and Sons, published in 1861, is a confrontation between the ancient regime of the 1840s and the modern intelligentsia who want to create a better society in the up and coming 1860’s.
Arkady, recently graduated from Moscow University, introduces his best friend, Bazarov, a medical student, to his parents. Bazarov is an arrogant, rude, heartless Nihilist, who respects nobody and wants to smash everything and begin anew.
Arkady (Joshua James) thinks he is brilliant and extraordinary. He hero-worships him and becomes his disciple; but he is far too liberal and far too naïve ever to become a successful Nihilist.
The ancient regime is represented by Arkady’s father, Nikolai, and his uncle, Pavel, and Bazarov’s proud and adoring parents, who are treated so badly by their son.
Nikolai (Anthony Calf) is a charming but inefficient liberal landowner, a widower, who has fallen in love with his housekeeper’s daughter (Caoilfhionn Dunne) and taken her as his mistress and had a child by her.
There are delightful performances by Tim McMullan as Pavel, a precious, pretentious dandy and by Karl Johnson as Bazarov’s over-reverential father, who is much given to quotation.
Turgenev imagined Bazarov to be a sombre, savage and great figure, only half emerged from barbarism, strong, méchant and honest but nevertheless doomed. “I do not know whether to love him or hate him,” he said.
Seth Numrich has the Nihilist’s articulacy but not the savage physical charisma. The role is further diminished by having his two major scenes ‑ a duel and his death from typhus ‑ acted off‑stage. Friel gives him a heroic death, making him die because he doctored the sick where the typhus was most virulent. Turgenev made his death a tragic accident.