Sons Without Fathers, Arcola Theatre, London – review

It seems that I simply cannot tune into Helena Kaut-Howson’s Chekhovian vision. A couple of years ago mine was a dissenting voice when she directed her own adaptation of Uncle Vanya; now, for the same co-producers (Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and the Arcola in London), she has tackled the sprawling piece of juvenilia usually known in English by the name of its protagonist Platonov, and although I can see what she is doing with it, I remain ungripped.

What she has done firstly is grapple the work down from a nominal seven-hour playing time uncut to barely three, which is still on the protracted side for Chekhov. Next, she has retained a focus on what the playwright himself considered his principal theme; he entitled the play Fatherlessness, and Platonov is only one of several youngish men who flap about (often with bottles of vodka), bereft of a sense of continuity or personal heritage. By setting her version in the modern day, Kaut-Howson astutely dovetails this individual impression into a corresponding suggestion that Russia itself has lost its sense of parentage and is trying, with more passion than judgment, to find its own way in the world.

Intellectually, it is all quite admirable. In practice, though, what a generation prone to bewildered, indulgent rambling does is to ramble with bewilderment and indulgence. To be sure, there are a clutch of fine performances here, not just by Jack Laskey in the no-longer-title role but the likes of Simon Scardifield as the self-lacerating doctor Triletzky, Susie Trayling as an unexpectedly predatory widow and Amy McAllister as the long-suffering wife. But, amused and admiring though we may be, even when characters gather momentum they do not take us with them.

The second act is occupied largely by Laskey’s Platonov being propositioned by every woman in the vicinity; as he puts it to himself: “Other men wrestle with questions of Earth-shattering importance, I am exercised by the question which skirt to chase.” He is informed by a bitter, despairing self-knowledge, but none of it is enough to give the act any more shape than a succession of shouted exchanges and sweaty fumbles. As a collective portrait of a lost generation, it hangs together, but at the risk of sounding like one of those missing fathers, hanging isn’t good enough.

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