Anton Chekhov’s rarely performed play Platonov describes itself as a tale of “sex, vodka and shattered dreams”. Polish director Helena Kaut-Howson adapts Chekhov’s earliest play by setting it in present day Russia and renaming the piece Sons Without Fathers. The play begins with a group of young Russians impatiently awaiting the arrival of their childhood friend Platonov so that they can celebrate his name day. Platonov, played brilliantly by Jack Laskey, is a quick-witted, playful and highly opinionated character. Although his friends are desperate for his approval, Platonov prefers to question and mock their life choices and ideals.
Despite being doted on by his wife, the protagonist cannot resist the temptation to seduce all women that cross his path. His conquests include the rich and sultry widow Anna Petrovna (Susie Trayling) and his best friend’s wife, Sophia Voynitzev (Marianne Oldham). However, it soon becomes apparent that the reason Platonov partakes in meaningless sex and excessive drinking is because he’s disillusioned with life, and thinks that his existence is futile. Laskey’s portrayal of the emotionally unstable Platonov is both engaging and believable, and in many ways he presents a modern day Hamlet.
The piece is performed in the round, with the back wall covered in clinical metallic cladding. Iona McLeish’s set design heightens the overall sense of feeling trapped in a small rural village. One thing I did find a little strange about this production is the use of rock music between scenes while the set was being changed: for me, this detracts from the otherwise naturalistic ambience. Sons Without Fathers is also very funny in parts, with one of the stand-out comic performances coming from Simon Scardifield’s interpretation of the alcoholic doctor Nikolai, whose favourite operation is extracting his patients’ wallets.
The decision to focus only on the younger generation means that Kaut-Howson is able to condense Chekhov’s work, which was originally six hours, into a more manageable three hour play. I think one of the reasons that this modernisation of Platonov works so well is that many of the key themes, such as political disillusionment, poverty and social inequality, are still very relevant today. Sons Without Fathers is a funny and bleak Chekhovian adaptation that examines one of the original antiheroes.
Sons Without Fathers is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 15 June. For tickets and more information please see the Arcola Theatre website.