Philistines at the Lyttleton Theatre (NT), is a beautifully acted and unexpectedly moving revival of Maxim Gorky’s first play, directed by Howard Davis (also responsible for the stunning Mourning Becomes Electra at this address in 2003). When we think of naturalism and early 20th Century Russia, we think of Chekhov and country estates, but in Gorky’s play, premiered in 1902, we are in a crowded city flat, with the astonishingly relevant trials, hopes and inadequacies of an ordinary family and their relationships, the subject of discussion. Phil Davis is Vassily, a middle class decorator who has come from nothing, trying to rule over his household (including his servants and tenants), but ultimately failing, his monstrous and self-centred character unable to emphasise with the aspirations of his two children or the position of anyone but himself. Tanya (a very sympathetic Ruth Wilson) is his daughter, she yearns for lodger and foster brother Nil (a superbly trenchant worker, Mark Bonnar), but he loves the servant Polya (Susannah Fielding), leading Tanya to misery and despair at life. Her brother, Pyotr, is an unhappy young man, suspended from University for leftist activity, but now feeling his life, and political actions, have been empty and futile, he feels desperately inadequate, yet thinks he is better than the squalid and disappointing life he is forced to lead. Outstandingly played by Rory Kinnear, he transmits complete truth onstage, cementing his place as one of the finest young actors of his generation. Teterev (Conleth Hill, on superb form), one of the lodgers, is a singer and inveterate drunkard, he bitterly philosophises and puts people right, but his cynical pearls of wisdom are brushed aside in a house already awash with misery. Despite this seemingly bleak set up, there is a lot of humour in the play, but the laughter is often uncomfortably close to our own realities as the family disintegrates.
It’s a dark play that virulently excoriates the polite society of middle class philistines like Vassily, where petty prejudices and hatred are never far from the surface. And it rips apart family life, showing it for the uncomfortable, sometimes unbearable, compromise that it is. It would be hard for anybody with a family or any close relationships, not to identify with some of the sentiments in the play, and the feeling of inadequacy and simultaneous scream for a better life of Pyotr must strike a chord with many people too.
The main problem with this production is Bunny Christie’s set design, it is simply too massive. The flat looks like a huge industrial space, with steel light shades so big you could probably take a trip on the river in one of them (part of the problem being the size of the Lyttleton stage, Christie’s set being otherwise apt). Gorky also departs from true naturalism in favour of elucidation of philosophical or political view points from time to time, but because they are so compelling, this is a minor gripe. The language is brilliant and snappy in Andrew Upton adaptation of the text; he has a perfect ear for the appropriate idiom, the search for which can often lead to jarring awkwardness instead of suitable fluidness, which is what we thankfully get here.
Gorky beautifully paints a picture of the age divide, an issue that in different ways, is still a defining point of our society over 100 years later, the generation gap being at the heart of the family divide in the play. But although the family relationships are central, social change through the arts, radical student politics and depression and suicide are all discussed, subjects still as fresh and important today as they were then (perhaps even more so now, with our well meaning predominantly middle class theatre, addiction to antidepressants and terrorist radicalisation alleged at some universities). The relevance of events to the impending changes of ‘the New Russia’ are clearly there, but they pertain quite wonderfully to us too.
For ensemble acting at its finest and a consistently absorbing, intellectually stimulating, play, head to the National Theatre.