REVIEW: Fathers and Sons, Donmar Warehouse ✭✭✭

Joshua James & Seth Numrich. Photo: Johan Persson

Joshua James & Seth Numrich. Photo: Johan Persson

Fathers and Sons
Donmar Warehouse
25 July 2014
3 Stars

There is a moment in the first Act of Brian Friel’s stage adaptation of Turgenev’s novel, Fathers and Sons, now playing at the Donmar Warehouse when the irascible, divinely dotty Princess Olga tells a story about how her father would “break in” horses by hitting them over the head with a crow-bar. Susan Engel, in delicious form as Olga, ensures by her delivery that the audience laughs, that the true horror of the tale is obfuscated.

And, in a nutshell, that encapsulates what is wrong with Friel’s adaptation.

By the end of the performance, one feels as though one has been hit with a crow-bar, so laboured (and trite) are some of the treatments of the central issues. Yes, there is humour and intrigue along the way, but the points of Turgenev’s famous novel seem lost amongst that. Friel’s changes to the plot don’t assist in that respect either.

Essentially, the novel is a “state of Russia” work, but it looks carefully at matters of class, the changes then occurring in Russia (mid-19th century) the clash between tradition, Western influences and the revolutionary spirit, and the power of love. It’s a detailed study of two men, both of whom say they advocate nihilism and both of whom come from different backgrounds: Arkady from a liberal democrat household and Bazarov from a traditional religious orthodox family.

In the novel, both men say they are opposed to love because of their adherence to nihilism, a doctrine that believes in nothing (essentially). Bazarov believes in nihilism absolutely and thinks he will be a great, important man because of his beliefs and what he will do (never specified). Arkady is a believer more because of his close friend’s blazing magnetism and passion for the cause.

They come to Arkady’s home and Arkady’s uncle forms an intense dislike of Bazarov because of his attitudes and brashness. In an effort to make Bazarov understand his uncle, Arkady tells him how his uncle lost the great love of his life and the effect it had on him. Bazarov ridicules the uncle, saying he was a fool to let love destroy his life.

But then Bazarov finds himself uncontrollably falling in love with a rich young widow, Anna. He can’t help himself. He declares his love and she rejects him.

Somewhat desolate and distracted, he and Arkady travel to visit Bazarov’s family but Bazarov is difficult with them, because of Anna’s rejection of him. They return to Arkady’s family home and, inevitably, there is another fight between Bazarov and Arkady’s uncle, Pavel. But this fight is caused by a kiss between Bazarov and Fenichka, the maid turned mistress turned mother-of-Arkady’s half-brother.

Bazarov kisses her on a casual whim, seeking to re-assure himself that love doesn’t exist. Pavel adores Fenichka and challenges the upstart to a duel. But Pavel misses and Bazarov wounds Pavel.

Bazarov leaves the Arkady home and returns to his parents’ village. Arkady has fallen for Anna’s sister, Katya, and decides to marry her. Still distracted by his feelings for Anna, Bazarov makes a mistake while performing an autopsy on a Typhus victim and contracts the fatal disease. Before he dies he asks for Anna to visit him and she does. He asks her to kiss him and she does. Then he dies.

Arkady marries Katya and inherits his father’s estate. Pavel retires to Germany to live a quiet, noble life; he has won in the end. His love has sustained him through life, even though it was lost. Bazarov’s passion for Anna, something he believed could not exist, destroys him. Arkady abandons nihilism and embraces love.

But that is the novel.

Friel’s version takes many different paths. Notably, Bazarov dies heroically, catching Typhus because of unending work with the infected people in the village. Anna rushes to Bazarov but never speaks with him as he is too close to death. She thinks she has made a mistake that would have enriched her life and saved his. Pavel is winged in the duel, but accidentally because Bazarov misfires the gun. Bazarov is rejected by Anna after his visit to his parents with Arkady and his oddness with them has no real foundation. The kiss with Fenichka comes directly after Anna’s rejection of Bazarov. Arkady does not seem that interested in Katya, but does marry her.

None of these changes improve anything; most of them make the characters more difficult to understand and turn the piece further away from Turgenev’s masterpiece and much closer to low-rent tragedy. Fourth-rate pseudo Chekov.

It is the acting which salvages things. Well, mostly anyway.

Seth Numrich is excellent as the brash, cocky, impetuous Bazarov. He has true stage charisma and energises every scene he is in. His best work comes in the scenes with Tim McMullen’s pitch-perfect “tailor’s dummy” Pavel, and in the scenes with Elaine Cassidy’s delightful, pert and quite zesty Anna.

It’s easy to see why Arkady idolises him and why the delightful maid Dunyasha (a lovely comic turn from Siobhán McSweeney) wants to kiss his feet. He handles a difficult role, made more difficult by the adaptation here, work better than it really should. Despite Bazarov’s belligerence and misguided self-beliefs, Numrich imbues him with style so that, when it comes, his death is very moving.

Karl Johnson is very good as Bazarov’s father, the country Doctor who does not understand his son but adores him anyway. Anthony Calf is slightly too loud too often, but paints a clear portrait of Arkady’s father, a man caught between his brother and his lover and what he worries his son will think.

But the bulk of the heart of the play rests on the shoulders of Arkady – and Joshua James is simply not up to the task here. It’s a truly odd performance, lacking in cohesion. At times it is difficult to know whether he is in love with Bazarov or Katya and, really, there is no sense of progression or change or development through his flighty, petulant and erratic turn.

Caoilfhionn Dunne is quite dreadful as Fenichka, the maid who has given Arkady his heals-brother. Almost inaudible throughout, she plays the role flatter than roti bread and it is almost impossible to understand why anyone bothers with her, as lover or friend. Dreary is not precise enough a description.

But there is excellent work from the ever reliable David Fielder and Phoebe Sparrow is quite a sweet Katya.

Lyndsey Turner directs. The set from Rob Howell looks, at first, very impressive – all wood slats and platforms and rustic furniture. But as the play unfolds it becomes clear that the set is simply “clever”; it does nothing to illuminate the spades where the action is meant to occur and, indeed, it manages to make the different areas seem much the same, so the marked differences clear from the novel go sailing by.

There is some stylish work involved in the scene changes, and the lighting (James Farncombe) and costumes are good. Alex Baranowski provides some effective music too.

But ultimately it is disappointing.

There used to be a TV soap called Sons and Daughters and this production of Fathers and Sons felt more like some historical episodes of that series than a thoughtful adaptation of Turgenev.