Fathers and Sons at Donmar Warehouse
When Yevgeny Vasil’evich Bazarov (Seth Numrich) first appears on stage at the Donmar, he barely says a word. There’s a glimmer of superiority, and an air of intelligence, but there is little to imply how deeply he will affect the lives of the people he meets through his anger, arrogance and sheer intensity.
Based on the novel by Ivan Turgenev and adapted for the stage by Irish playwright Brian Friel, Fathers and Sons is a play about the divide between a new ideology and the old. Set in early 19th century Russia, the play focuses on the Kirsanovs, a reasonably wealthy family, and their relationship with recently graduated son Arkady and his new friend Bazarov, an ardent nihilist.
Characters who still ascribe to a more traditional way of life are also the most likeable, particularly Nikolai Karsinov, Arkady’s father and long time widower played by Anthony Calf. Nikolai bumbles pleasantries as contradictions fly off his tongue in an attempt to please his new house guests; through these meaningless niceties Bazarov cuts like a knife. Numrich is captivating in the role and captures the characters intellectual potential, arrogance and later frustrations terrifically.
Performances are superb throughout: between Elaine Cassidy’s Anna, a stern, wealthy widow who is almost a match for Bazarov, and Tim McMullan’s Pavel, an aristocrat in every sense of the word, there are no poor performances or weakly rounded characters. Relationships are well crafted and deftly realised on stage, and the close bond between Arkady and Bazarov – despite the rising tensions between them – is perfectly pitched.
Direction is flawless: between each scene there is an overlap as moments intertwine and characters pause as if stuck in a memory only to be brought into the new moment by a grip of their shoulder. Pacing is also strong, but far less so in the second half. Marked by an unseen tragedy, the characters change visibly at this point, if only to continue on as they had only with an increased stubbornness.
Despite its heavy subject matter, Fathers and Sons remains enormously entertaining. Comedy is sometimes intelligent and even challenging, but the farcical elements are genuinely funny and act as welcome relief against the deep emotional resonance on display. Bazarov’s struggle to match his beloved nihilism with heartfelt emotions is engaging, but the play’s second half is left wanting without it, and inevitably it’s at this point that Fathers and Sons falls just short of excellence.
Joe Manners Lewis
Fathers and Sons is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26th July 2014. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.