This week the National Theatre opens a new production of Gorky’s Philistines, but here, at the tiny Finborough Theatre in Earls Court, is an appetiser – if something quite this bleak can be described as such. The title of Gorky’s best-known 1902 play makes plain its intent. It takes us to “the lower depths” of pre-revolutionary Russia, to a squalid dosshouse. Here people eke out, as one character puts it, “a pitiful existence amid the rotting rags”. The characters are oddballs, thieves and derelicts trapped in an underground slum, kept down by social inequity and vodka. The play opens with one death and closes with another. Violence, cynicism and despair are the norm. You get the picture.
This is the difficulty with reviving the play. Gorky’s justifiable wrath at a society that treated its outcasts so callously comes storming across the footlights, as do his deep concern for and belief in his fellow man. The play certainly illuminates the gross injustices that gave rise to the Russian revolution and makes the audience painfully aware of how easily misfortune can ruin a life. But structurally it now seems formulaic and didactic, with its ideologically opposed individuals, its rather transparently orchestrated arguments about the virtues of hard truth versus consoling fantasy and its wise old tramp, who inspires the characters with his belief in their innate worth.
Phil Willmott, directing, wisely works to overcome the play’s dramaturgical weaknesses and emphasise its strengths: its passionate humanity and its uncompromising authenticity. He adds excerpts from Gorky’s other work to the play and offers a pungent, expletive-laden translation and splashes of humour. Nicky Bunch’s set matches the play’s grimy realism, confining the audience with the characters in a fetid, murky cellar festooned with grey washing.
Against this drab backdrop, the cast bring the characters bubbling to life, so that their vitality makes their sorry state more troubling. The furrier (Peter G Reed), driven over the edge by his wife’s affair, the aristocrat (Andrew Colley) who had a mental breakdown, the prostitute (Victoria Gee) who dreams of romance, the wise old traveller (Richard Gofton) – are all vividly brought to life. This incisive production can’t quite overcome the play’s shortcomings, but it strongly conveys Gorky’s compassion, daring and reforming zeal.
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