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National Theatre (Lyttelton), London

Andrew Haydon
posted 1 June 2007

It is strange to consider that 105 years ago, when Maxim Gorky’s first play Philistines opened in St Petersburg, it was every bit as radical as Katie Mitchell’s recent production of Attempts On Her Life, which it now follows into the National’s Lyttleton Theatre. What may now appear a somewhat leisurely (3 hours including an interval) look at the lives, loves and politics of nouveau riche provincial Russians, was once social and political dynamite that caused riots at its premiere.

While Andrew Upton’s new version of the play is unlikely to provoke anything like the same reaction, it is a testament to its excellence that even though the central household’s political wrangling may not carry any direct relevance to a modern audience, their furious rows sound new-minted, and the proponents are as immediately identifiable and human as any character written in the past six months: Pyotr’s sullen-but-cowardly student, expelled from law school and sulking round his father’s flat, is as understandable as he is contemptible, while his love-lorn, dowdy, schoolmistress sister Tanya demands a similar mix of sympathy and pity. Both exemplify the sort of stasis against which the play powerfully rails. Both are in some measure being gradually destroyed by their aging, authoritarian father Vassily, and by the lack of any sort of ‘life’ going on around them. Pyotr drops his socialist friends as they try to convert soldiers to their cause with a play, while Tanya pines inertly for her dynamic foster brother Nil (a charismatic Mark Bonnar). Around them various lodgers, servants and parents-of-servants mill, eating, philosophising and drinking endlessly from the samovar. For the first half, characters engage in endless debate as Gorky gradually manoeuvres his cast into their unguessable positions. The second half, by contrast, is a car crash of emotion, pain and rage. Tiny hints of anguish from the first half explode into sudden catastrophe in the second.

Howard Davies’ directs a first-rate cast with a wonderful eye for detail. Rory Kinnear’s Pyotr manages the neat trick of commanding the stage with a character who spends most of his time shrinking from confrontation, while Ruth Wilson as Tanya seems at times to be able to draw the entire auditorium into her grief, sitting and silently weeping while the several hundred onlookers sit absolutely still - gripped - hardly even breathing. Elsewhere Justine Mitchell as Elena injects almost Coward-esque levity into her portrayal of the domineering, seductive widow from the flat upstairs, and Conleth Hill makes the most of the philosophical drunk Teterev. Bunny Christie’s set - brilliantly lit by Neil Austin - is a masterful balance of austerity and detail, with large sash windows almost perpetually pelted with rain, while the shadowy figures in the opposite flats flit across their windows, going about their business, dressing and undressing, and staring across at their neighbours, adding to the air of claustrophobia that gathers through the piece. If there is a weakness, it could be that Phil Davis’ Vassily never quite pulls off the requisite authority or unpleasantness. He is more Albert Steptoe than the raging anti-Semite who has, by the close of the play, destroyed his family rather than lose his authoritarian grip.

Gorky’s play is, by turn, a glorious rag-bag of stuff, and a model of precision. It offers huge swathes of political discussions that it is hard to imagine surviving any dramaturgical department in a modern theatre, and yet at other times conveys with a half sentence a complete desolation of the soul. It is an enormous, ambitious, political, human play and a heavy, sustained attack on a crumbling society. And while, thank God, that isn’t especially relevant to contemporary Britain; it serves as a timely reminder of just how little this fetish for ‘relevance’ really matters compared to the bigger, older themes on which drama can be built.

Till 18 August 2007


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