Theatre review: Sons Without Fathers, Arcola Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

Everything is weird about Chekhov’s first play, best known as Platonov, and here given a tremendous, roistering, sex-and-vodka update by Polish director Helena Kaut-Howson that suggests life in the Russian countryside today is not much more fun than it was for the serfs.

The play was unfinished and far too long, and has only crept into the repertoire belatedly. It was first seen in England with a 52-year old Rex Harrison playing the 27 year-old womanising anti-hero (played at the Arcola a wild-haired, vituperative young-ish Jack Laskey), adapted by Michael Frayn as Wild Honey at the National and later by David Hare for a glorious revival at the Almeida.

And it’s literally titled “Fatherlessness” which Kaut-Howson alludes to as a state of mind, really, rather than a Tolstoyan generational conflict, as she’s cut out various sub-plots with the older characters. Laskey’s loose cannon of a provincial schoolmaster is clearly affected, like Hamlet, by the loss of his father; his life is in a downward spiral of promiscuity, drink, violent mood swings and cynicism.

Kaut-Howson is possibly influenced here by Benedict Andrews’s no-holds-barred modern Three Sisters at the Young Vic last year, Laskey bursting through a silver panel on Iona McLeish’s design that looks as though Platonov’s kindergarten has been commandeered by the grown-ups for their own party.

Costuming, too, suggests an elision between the pre-Revolutionary and post-Communist social culture, with Mark Jax’s bear-like Osip now serving some unspecified secret security service and a message delivered in the last scene by a cadaverous remnant of a century ago.

“Primary School” is plastered in Cyrillic lettering across the steel panelling and all the birthday songs and drinking bouts are observed with authentic Russian fervour. Simon Scardifield’s drunken doctor mockingly “hangs” himself then checks his own heartbeat before bitterly observing that he’s recently read an article about one hundred top Russians to watch – “and we’re not in it.”

The show veers constantly between these blackly humorous episodes and electrifying encounters such as that between Platonov (always pronounced with the stress on the second syllable) and Marianne Oldham’s conflicted Sophia, an old flame newly married to Tom Canton’s Sergei, stepson of the imperious Anna Petrovna.

Petrovna herself has designs on Platonov and Susie Trayling shows she means business by wielding a horse-whip in black leathers at their moonlit tryst; suddenly the action escalates into farce, with a kick in the teeth and catastrophe to follow.

To 15 June (020 7503 1646)