The setting is rural Russia, the clothes are mid-19th-century, but the generational conflict in Turgenev’s story remains as fresh as ever. The young are impatient with the old in this droll, observant stage adaptation by Brian Friel (the great Irish playwright was in the first night audience at the Donmar). In Lyndsey Turner’s unfussy and beautifully acted staging, it becomes a poignant depiction of fractious, unspoken love – between the sexes, between parent and child, between friends – while never losing sight of the fact that the conditions over which the generations squabble will eventually produce a revolution, 50 years down the line.
On a hot May afternoon, Arkady (an excellent Joshua James) returns to his family estate from university, bringing with him a new friend. His father’s delight at being reunited with his son is tempered somewhat by the presence of the friend, an arrogant individual called Bazarov, who causes dismay with his radical views and uncouth ways. Bazarov is a nihilist, who, in contrast with the moderate liberalism of Arkady’s genial, disorganised father Nikolai (a lovely performance from Anthony Calf), professes not to believe in convention, art or love. Seth Numrich, broodingly handsome and disdainful, plays Bazarov as a man born a good century too early to be where he belongs: fronting an intense and gloomy rock band. His charismatic scorn attracts the women and disturbs the men – none more so than Arkady’s absurdly dandyish Uncle Pavel (wonderfully played here by Tim McMullan, who brings a wealth of withering hauteur to a simple request for sugar).
But Bazarov, of course, protests too much: no sooner has he declared love redundant than he meets a wealthy widow who knocks him between the eyes. Unfortunately, this dilemma ultimately leads to tragedy when Bazarov stomps off to help his doctor father deal with a typhus outbreak among the peasants. All the talk of reform or revolution has done nothing to solve the poverty that produces fatal disease.
The transition from page to stage produces lumps and bumps in Friel’s adaptation: there is some stilted narrative pacing and several undernourished characters (the women in particular). But there’s a quiet, subtle humanity to it and this is what Turner’s production projects. In one superb scene, James’s Arkady and Karl Johnson as Bazarov’s father turn an awkward conversation into a devastating account of grief. For all the father-son tensions, it is this tender depiction of father-son love that stays with you.