NUMRICH AS A NIHILIST HOUSEGUEST…
It is a universally recognizable moment: an idealistic student home for summer with revolutionary theories and an adored, even more revolutionary, flatmate. Arkady – Joshua James, earnestly puppyish – is back from St Petersburg and thrilled to introduce his bumblingly incompetent Dad Nikolai (Anthony Calf) to Bazarov. As a sultry, arrogant nihilist with collarlength hair Seth Numrich is perfect casting (even better than in Sweet Bird of Youth last year). At first he is magnificently arrogant in his scorn for everything the estate represents – except old Nikolai’s irregular liaison with his mistress Fenichka, which he approves. As he becomes unwillingly attracted to a rich widowed neighbour Anna (Elaine Cassidy) he shades back to show that the ardent, confused youth still lies beneath the political fervour. It’s beautifully done; so is Elaine Cassidy’s bitter self-containment as Anna, veteran of marital compromise, and the corresponding unreadable quietness of Caoilfhionn Dunne as Fenichka, the “healing presence in this uneasy house”.
This year already the Old Vic has reminded us of the tragicomic brilliance of Ivan Turgenev, who like Chekhov can make the affairs of 19c Russian estate-owners shake 21st century hearts. For all the costumes and polysyllabic names a good adaptation makes us directly kin to their tenderness, disillusion, longing for love and bearing of “the insolence of life”. This time it is a novel which Brian Friel adapts: elegantly compressed, scenes months apart succeeding one another in musical semi-darknesses. Director Lyndsey Turner holds the mood, often keeping one set of characters frozen in their last emotion, looking on like ghosts as the next group move in and assemble in the beautiful, impressionistic barn-plank set by Rob Howell. It gives the play, taut as it is, a novel’s sense of saga as a long summer wears on to harvest. Friel distils its humanity until what could have been a period piece sings its sad song to us all.
The political gap between the young men speaks to all ages too: as Bazarov snarls at Arkady “Your heart never forsook the gentry, the decencies…well-bred indignation, well-bred resignation” the eternal radical confronts the eternal liberal. But the play’s heart is not political. After the central tragedy – not showy, but sorrowfully real – deep moments lie before us: notably an old couple clinging together (Karl Johnson as Bazarov’s old father is enchanting, heartbreakingly bufferish even in deep grief). There are the dry unspoken sadnesses of compromise too, and moments of high humour, as when Bazarov’s first exposition of nililist philosophy goes down very badly indeed with the dandyish Uncle Pavel (Tim McMullan hilariously stiff as his military moustache and silver-topped cane). Susan Engel as the aged Princess Olga only has about eight lines, but every one is a winner (“Do you like October, Princess?” “I detest every month”). Her brief strictures on horsebreaking – hit them in the face with a crowbar – and the need to whip accordion-players are treasures.
Underlying it all is a sense of “the proper order of things”: routine, discipline, normality, and a gentle mourning both for its fragility, and for the way it shuts out bigger dreams. Friel’s treatment ends with – literally – harmony in Nikolai’s house. But it is a harmony which makes your heart turn over in pity.
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