‘Sons Without Fathers’ at the Arcola Theatre, London

Russian Anarchy in the UK: ‘Sons Without Fathers’ at the Arcola Theatre, London, in co-production with the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

Helena Kaut-Howsen directs a striking, strangely discordant production of Chekhov’s first play ‘Plotonov’. Translated and adapted by Kaut-Howsen from a lost script only found after Chekhov’s death the drama has been titled ‘Sons Without Fathers’ and reduced from 5 hours to a shorter allegory for the psyche of a lost generation. There’s a real sense of displacement of characters all at sea and without purpose. The production has a contemporary setting and futuristic brutalist metallic background, clashing with a cluttered domestic interior, and a thrash metal Balkan nightclub sound design (Paul Bull with Original Motifs composition by Boleslaw Rawski) against which the dialogue is at times blurred – suggestive of the characters not quite being able to communicate, not quite getting one another. The title and themes of the play highlight a modern pre-occupation: If a strong figurehead is the role-model for a young man – what happens when he is not there? Be that in a literal or emotional sense.

The men in the play drink or ‘go feral’ in the forest, dream of running away and blame someone else for their troubles. They act caddishly to the women and fail to live up to expectations. Yet provincial school teacher Platonov (a convincing delivery from Jack Laskey), serial philanderer and the worst of them all is adored by the women in the play. Themes that run through the drama include alcoholism, boredom, despair, and the misapprehension that a love affair can somehow lift the characters out of a void and give them new life. Osip the ‘wild man in the forest’ in a colourful portrait by Mark Jax, is supposedly the darkest character but seems to be the one with the most integrity. All the male characters are perhaps aspects of the playwright himself from youthful idealist, to jaded lost soul, to country doctor and hopeless philanderer.

Continuing in the same vein, Chekhov’s women, rather than rounded portraits, each seem to symbolise an aspect of womanhood. Sasha, PlatoAnov’s wife is young, blindly naïve, propping up the failings of her father, her brother and her husband. Amy McAllister gives a sensitive and touching performance. Susie Trayling is comic and powerful as Anna Petrovna, the wealthy good looking widow chasing a thrill to occupy the void in her life. Jade Williams is Maria Grekova the school teacher whose feminist idealism is rendered meaningless by her inability to resist Platonov. Marianne Oldham who played Yelena in Uncle Vanya at the Arcola last year also directed by Kaut-Howsen, returns here as Sophia with china doll fragility, creating a powerful underlying sense of an emotionally and psychologically troubled soul. Tom Canton gives a subtle performance as her husband Sergei a wealthy young man with no particular purpose in life.

Economic issues shadow all the characters’ lives from the threadbare Nikolai Triletsky (Simon Scardifield) a country doctor who commands no financial status, to Anna Petrovna, selling off assets and Sasha nourishing her family on cabbage soup. Young student Vengerovich stands aside, as an idealist, a Jewish man, a critic, yet he exists on his fathers’ ‘new wealth’ and teeters on the edge attempting to tap into the world the other characters inhabit.

There is a strong sense of Chekhov trapping his characters and us the audience, in this desperate place. The production’s eclectic influences range from moments that evoke Shakespeare to those that place Chekhov as a forefather to Samuel Beckett. Inevitably somehow, being Chekhov the night ends with a gun shot.

Runs until June 15

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