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A CurtainUp London Review
Fathers and Sons
Set in Russia just before the destruction of the Russian revolution, we meet two young men who got to know each other at university in St Petersburg. Arkady (Joshua James) has come back to his family bringing with him his friend Yvgeny Bazarov (Seth Numrich), a nihilist and medical student. Fathers and Sons is the first book to coin the word nihilist to describe someone who wants to sweep away the old regime before recreating a fairer society.
Arkady's family are his widowed farming father Nicolai (Anthony Calf) and his uncle Pavel (Tim McMullan), an educated, well travelled and sociable man who drops French phrases into his conversation. Nicolai has had a baby with, but is not married to Fenichka (Caoilfhionn Dunne), who has a role as a domestic servant or housekeeper. Nearby live their neighbours, Anna (Elaine Cassidy) a young, beautiful and rich widow, her eccentric aunt Princess Olga (Susan Engel) and Anna's sister Katya (Phoebe Sparrow).
Much of the early scene is building the characters with the non-compromising Bazarov openly criticizing Pavel and expounding to Arkady his theories about how society should be reformed. Bazarov rejects emotion as he talks dispassionately about the way things should be. He finds he has misjudged Anna as he classes her as one of a landowning family, only for her to explain that she has clawed her way back up from poverty by making a judicious marriage.
Rob Howell's beautiful set is of distressed wooden planks, painted in soft pastels which have spaces to let the light and shade through from above and which can pivot to form a lower ceiling. Scenes in the Kirsanov family home are on a covered porch and later the set becomes more confined when we go to Bazorov's home to meet his adoring mother Arina (Lindy Whiteford) and his doctor father Vassily (Karl Johnson). The Kirsanovs daren't demonstrate affection to their openly critical son. The cast wear mid 19th century costumes completing this openly atmospheric portrait of two Russian families.
Turgenev's novels make choice plays. His era is slightly earlier than Chekhov but the social inequalities that will prove the breeding ground for revolution are present. This study of families is beautifully crafted and here gets outstanding performances from the cast. Joshua James has come of age as an actor, gaining strength and subtlety in each production I have seen him in and American actor Seth Numrich as the attractive and articulate Basarov blew me away with an inspirational performance, all delivered with a flawless English accent. I fully expect to see both their names on the Best Actor nominations later this year.
The smaller parts too are delightful. Caoilfhionn Dunne's mother of the landowner's child sinks to the floor in silent despair as Nikolai talks about not marrying her and Siobhan McSweeney's maid Dunyasha flirts with Basarov. Tim McMullan's dandified Pavel keeps up appearances and Anthony Calf's vague Nikolai shows he has much less business acumen than the beautiful Anna. Susan Engel too has hilarious moments as batty Princess Olga as she smells cats and makes outrageous remarks.
There are many moments of pleasure and poignancy in this beautiful play which I cannot recommend too highly and would love to see again.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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