While Broadway currently has a new drama on the boards called Mothers and Sons which provides a contemporary look at the notion of family in the age of gay marriage, London's Donmar Warehouse is reviving Brian Friel's Fathers and Sons, based on the 19th-century novel by Ivan Turgenev, that offers a rather different slant on familial loyalties and (dis)affection.
It is, in other words, a perennially fascinating topic, but Friel and Turgenev (the latter of whose original play Fortune's Fool was revived at the Old Vic last December) provide a richer, denser tapestry of people facing big changes than Terrence McNally's more narrowly focused portrait of another seismic societal disruption.
In a highly tuned and taut production by Lyndsey Turner, who returns to the Donmar after directing another Friel play Philadelphia, Here I Come! there in 2012, all the play's aching resonances are drawn out in its gripping study of idealism, friendship, family, romance and death.
The play revolves around two newly graduated young University friends Arkady (Joshua James) and Bazarov (Seth Numrich) who, on visits to each other's families, reveal the generational gaps between their new revolutionary zeal for change that mirrors that of the country they are living in. Their country is changing fast, and so, over the course of the next two hours, will the lives of these young men and their families forever.
Friel, that most Chekhovian of modern writers, translates that Russian spirit to characters who speak with English accents (including American actor Seth Numrich who sounds faultlessly English). And each of the actors brings an effortless naturalism to their finely calibrated performances, with notable appearances from Anthony Calf as Arkady's father Nikolai, Caroilfhionn Dunne as Nikolai's mistress Fenichka, Karl Johnson as Bazarov's father Vassily, Tim McMullen as Arkady's Uncle Pavel, and Elaine Cassidy as Anna, the widow whom Bazarov falls in love with.
The result is another must-see at the Donmar, where artistic director Josie Rourke is really hitting her stride to keep this important theatre on the London map.
"Watching the production is like listening to a richly interwoven chamber symphony."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"This is no cut-and-paste version of the 1862 Russian masterpiece. It is more a meditation on its main themes and, as Lyndsey Turner's excellent production reveals, is an ensemble piece that yields a rich gallery of performances."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Brian Friel’s adaptation takes some liberties with the original Turgenev novel. Yet this is exactly the kind of piece that the Donmar Warehouse does well, and here there’s a deeply satisfying mix of soulfulness and elegance."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard