Fathers and Sons

It’s not entirely clear what lies behind Brian Friel’s Father and Sons.
Taken from Turgenev’s novel – regarded as one of the great classics of 19th century literature – Friel first `adapted’ the novel for the stage as far back as the late 1980s, a golden period for him when he also produced three of his finest works, Aristocrats, The Faith Healer and Translations (my all-time favourite).

I love early Friel. Yet Father and Sons, in Lyndsey Turner’s current revival, seems to sit uncomfortably betwixt and between, neither compelling social or personal or political drama. Nor as in Translations, a vibrant metaphor of colonialism.

In reshaping Fathers and Sons, Friel evidently felt a strong kinship with Turgenev writing about the seismic changes under way with the Russian emancipation of the Serfs and Ireland’s 1840 Famine and the economic hardships that ensued from that. Yet as followed here, it’s not so much the working poor that Friel/Turgenev seems concerned with as exploring ideas behind revolution, philosophies propagating change. And households in transition.

Two sons return to their respective parents, both graduates fired by revolutionary zeal. But Arkady (Joshua James) displays a more liberal attitude whilst his friend, Bazarov (played by American actor Seth Numerich) shuns such bourgeois affectations as romantic love or attachment and as a full blown nihilist, demands the sweeping away of everything, a total rebirth.

Some of this might have had real resonance in the turbulent times – here and in Northern Ireland – in the 1980s. But it’s hard to find the production’s core meaning for today for all of Friel and Turgenev’s skill in showing both attitudes becoming compromised when confronted by other human realities. The zealot falls madly in love, despite his political conviction; and Arkady is left ultimately broken-hearted by the loss of his friend, his political resolve hardened by his untimely death from typhus.

In between, as in Chekhov – to which there are inevitable comparisons – there is much toing and froing, expressions of passion unrequited, estates languishing from mis-management and class distinctions between owner and servant. A sense of tragi-comedy increasingly pervades.

But played at break-neck speed, Turner’s production gives little time to nuance or sub-text and ultimately fails to create the kind of hermetic atmosphere so beloved of Chekhov directors that brings disparate personalities not only into sharp focus but makes us care deeply about them.

Without such emotional cement, the play feels diffuse. There is solid work from Anthony Calf as Nikolai, Arkady’s well-meaning if scatty landowning father, Tim McMullan as Pavel, a cantankerous, ex-army officer and dandy, an exemplar of old Russia and Susan Engel as a colourfully batty Princess Olga, smelling cats in every corner and longing to whip everything that moves into shape.

Rob Howells’s set is a marvel of versatility and Russian rural evocation, at once monumental and intimate. But you leave the theatre no clearer as to the director or writer’s intentions. A strange, unsatisfying encounter.