Maxim Gorkys reputation may languish eternally in the shadow of his contemporary and friend Anton Chekhov, but theres been a revival of interest in his plays recently.
Now the National Theatres highly impressive staging of Gorkys first play Philistines (1902) provides further persuasive evidence that his writing is much more sophisticated than his socialist agit-prop label might suggest.
Andrew Uptons punchy, colloquial version does not treat the heavyweight intellectualizing of the play with too much reverence, giving the drama a contemporary feel and bringing out plenty of humour.
Set at the turn of the twentieth century in an unnamed Russian town, Philistines strains and seethes with a sense of society falling part and revolution just round the corner. The play provoked riots when originally performed, then was banned by the Czarist authorities, while Gorky himself was later imprisoned for taking part in the Bloody Sunday demonstration of the failed 1905 revolution.
The action takes place in the large rambling house of the decorator Vassilly, who has done so well that he can now make a good living as a landlord renting out property. (Gradually it becomes clear that his divided and disintegrating household is a microcosm of Russian society.) Living under his beady capitalist eye are his downtrodden wife Akulina, his law student son Pyotr who has been suspended from Moscow University for taking part in a socialist demonstration, and his old maid schoolteacher daughter Tanya who is in love with his foster-son Nil, a railwayman who believes in the inevitable progress of the proletariat.
Two tenants the free-spirited young widow Elena who is drawn to Pyotr, and Teterev, a drunken disillusioned intellectual who is besotted with the maid Polya make up this household, whose atmosphere of pervasive gloom makes it feel more like a prison than a home. When Nil and Polya unexpectedly get engaged, the repercussions are felt all around, but even more devastating consequences follow when the household becomes involved with the radical political protests in the town.
This fascinating mix of ingredients takes a while before it explodes into a Molotov cocktail of generational, domestic, sexual and political conflict. At the beginning, with the frustrated Pyotr and Tanya bemoaning the stagnation of their lives and yearning ineffectually for escape, it feels rather like the quiet desperation of a Chekhov play. But Gorky later brings more urgency into the drama, as tedium turns to tragedy, with the ensuing bitter struggles reflecting splits in the wider society.
Bunny Christies wonderful design, a cavernous and forbidding house, full of shadowy corners, with rain always streaking the windows, nicely sets the scene for this twilight world that the characters inhabit. And director Howard Davies delivers a subtle and well-modulated production, coaxing excellent ensemble playing from the cast.
Ruth Wilsons suicidal and ghostly Tanya – who begins and ends the play in seemingly hopeless limbo, a victim equally of her environment and her own self-centredness makes a big impact, as does Rory Kinnear as Pyotr, a weak whinger who is aware of his own potential but who does not have the courage of his convictions.
Mark Bonnar exudes an energetic confidence as Nil, Justine Mitchell conveys an independent feminimity as Elena and Conleth Hill is outstanding as Teterev, a clown-like cynical philosopher full of self-loathing. And Phil Davis manages to be equally funny and repulsive as the emotionally illiterate, money-obsessed Vassilly, who tries ineffectually to exert his authority on the others, shouting out repeatedly Its my house! though the stone-smashed window at the end suggests it wont be for much longer.