The works of Maxim Gorky are currently enjoying an upturn in popularityat the moment. The National Theatre is about to stage a major new productionof his early play Philistines, but first up we have a staging of hisengaging social drama, The Lower Depths at Earls Court’s intimateFinborough Theatre.
The play is presented in a new version, written and directed by PhilWillmott. His adaptation is supremely easy to engage with, packed as it iswith black humour and amusing, if occasionally rather incongruous, earthylanguage.
Written in 1902, The Lower Depths is set in a provincial Russiandoss-house inhabited by those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder:alcoholics, gamblers, prostitutes. Oh, and actors. Or at least one formeractor, but his life, like the other characters, has been blighted by debt,drink and the crushing weight of poverty.
The play begins with the death ofa young woman, who, after a life of hardship and want, has finally lost thewill to fight anymore this sets the tone for what follows, the plight ofthe characters feels horribly, inescapably, hopeless, and any occasionalglimpses of revolutionary fervor are usually swiftly stamped out.
The dosshouse is presided over by Olga, the sharp-tongued andhard-hearted landlady and her unseen but violent husband. Even thelandlady’s sister, Natasha, is not spared his wrath she is often beatenand forced to do all the work in this miserable place.
A little light is shone into these characters’ lives by the arrival of a wise old vagrantwhose tales offer them hope, something to cling on to, albeit only for ashort while. But his stories are ultimately only stories, not enough tosolve these people’s problems. Even Natasha’s tentative relationship with acharismatic thief called Vassily seems doomed.
The intimate Finborough space has also been made to feel suitably murkyand smoky, and Wilmott’s large ensemble cast acquit themselves well. Thereare strong performances all round, particularly from Olivia McDonald as thehard-eyed Olga and Richard Gofton as the elderly but enigmatic traveler,Luka. Andrew Colley is also memorable as a drifter who insists he is reallya Baron and was once served coffee and cream in bed each morning; as isUrsula Mohan as a cackling widow a mother figure of sorts to this oddgroup.
Despite its bleak premise this is a compelling production. Though hisoveruse of contemporary cuss-words can grate, Willmott has successfullybrought out the play’s still-relevant message about the effects of extremepoverty on the human spirit to create an interesting and gripping piece oftheatre.