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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Donmar


  Joshua James and Seth Numrich/ Ph: Johan Persson.

Since Russia's Vagntagnov Theatre brought their unconventional Uncle Vanya to London a couple years ago, it has become hard to watch classical Russian drama, staged in the usual way, without a sense of box-ticking. The samovars, the beach trees and, as much as anything, the sheer theme park realism signals – or screams – an intent to deliver something definitive.
Here, Lindsey Turner's revival of Brian Friel's 1987 adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's classic novel is not traditional, nor is it particularly inventive, other than Rob Howell's arresting design. It consists mainly of acutely angled wooden planks and slats, a common Russian building material in 1859, when the play is set. They streak toward the audience as if the play were viewed through a wide-angle lens. 
The dizzying effect chimes with Turgenev's landed characters. Change is in the air, and the Tsar's emancipation of the serfs is on the horizon. It's a good opportunity for the privileged to bear their liberal credentials. Estate owner Nikolai (Anthony Calf) does his bit for that cause by intending to marry his former servant Fenichka (Caoilfhionn Dunne), with whom he has a baby. However, the real dismantler of tradition here is the young nihilist Bazarov (played by the American actor Seth Numrich) brought to the estate by Nikolai's son Arkady (Joshua James). Both were at university together in St Petersburg. But although Arkady can talk the nihilist talk – which argues that dysfunctional Russian society can be transformed only by dismantling every institution and cutting familial ties – in practise Arkady is full of love, especially for his aristocratic Uncle Pavel, for whom Barazov has an equal amount of contempt. More than anyone, Arkady loves Barazov.
The evening is a suitably slow burn. Friel's expertly adapted version emphasises Turgenev's familial themes but is at its best when revealing the frailties and motives that lie behind each character's public persona. Barazov's doctor father Vassily (Karl Johnson) affects a formality with his formidably intellectual son but desperately yearns for something closer and warmer. Elaine Cassidy as the porcelain widowed heiress Anna eventually cracks at the realisation that a possibly once-in-lifetime chance to love has been missed. There is good work too from Calf's Nikolai, the estate's patriarch whose duty is to the land but whose passion lies in music. Tim McMullan, as the aristo who affects disapproval of his brother's marriage to a servant (Dunne), but is in fact secretly in love with her, is outstanding.
Yet absorbing as all these conditions are, none of the predicaments devastates. Indeed, though Turgenev came before, the evening feels as it is faithfully following in Chekhov's footsteps. I don't have any gripes about Turner's production. The director, who did a brilliant job clarifying the infinite complexities of Lucy Kirkwood's Chimerica, delivers a totally assured production here. But the emotion on stage rarely spills into the audience. Perhaps if Turner had taken a leaf out of Barazov's book and dismantled a few theatrical conventions, the sense of watching an underpowered half-forgotten Chekhov instead of great 19th century literature might have been avoided.


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