‘Sons Without Fathers’ at Arcola

Platonov is Chekhov’s earliest play but the sprawling five-hour tragedy was only published after his death. Written for Maria Yermolova, Chekhov abandoned the work when she refused to star and it has since remained on the fringes of performance history. But following a successful run at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Platonov makes its London debut at the Arcola. And what a debut it is. This is sexed-up, high-voltage Chekhov, generously trimmed and rebranded Sons without Fathers in a new adaptation by Helena Kaut-Howson.

The eponymous Platonov, a provincial school teacher, is a frustrated intellectual. Married to a miniature babushka and wasting his life away on drink and existential crises, he finds his own existence tiresome. To break the stalemate, a band of old acquaintances arrive for a birthday booze-up. What follows is a sharp-toothed study of one man unable to shrug off a poisonous lethargy.

It rests on Jack Laskey’s shoulders to carry the production. A walking mess of unwashed hair and body odour, his Platanov could have been plucked from the swamps of Glastonbury. But when his grungy magnetism attracts a series of women, he finds elicit sex, like everything else, too much effort. While the challenge of Laskey’s performance is consistency, the females who make up his growing entourage, must each metamorphose considerably. Unable to ‘fix’ Platanov, they turn into a frightening trio: the officious shrew, the possessive dominatrix and the bespectacled chemist.

When Plantanov confesses ‘it’s not an affair, it’s an almighty mess’ one realises that it’s also a jolly good piece of theatrical structuring. Offered a series of escape routes and balking at each, Platonov reveals that he is only comfortable with life as he knows it. This Catch 22 is perfectly embodied by Laskey who alternates Byronic swoons with energetic floundering.

Simon Scardifield is brilliant as his co-conspirator, the local doctor, unashamedly swigging vodka in a tea-stained wife beater and nursing a constant hangover. His comic mockery of Platonov’s pronouncement that ‘it’s all so futile’ is perfectly choreographed as he sobs into a teddy bear and pretends to hang himself. It underscores the production’s renegade decision to parody its own concerns with nihilism and boredom, offering us a soundtrack of Russian heavy metal instead.

While the play presents a man at a loss, the production assures us of a director in control. Conscious of a three hour running time, Helena Kaut-Howson has scrupulously paced every sequence leading to the final confrontation between Platanov and his cabbage-fed nemesis, Osip. The cast are never at rest, scrambling up and down a ladder to an imposing aluminum structure and gyrating in phosphorescent smog. The result is an addictive and raucous production that makes you sit up and take notice. By the end I felt that I, as well as the Russians, had been at the narcotics.

Sons Without Fathers is running until Sat 15 June at:

Arcola Theatre
24 Ashwin St
E8 3DL

Photo: Simon Annan

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