Enemies @ Almeida Theatre, London

cast list
Jack Davenport
Sean Gilder
Sean Chapman
Stephen Noonan
Graham Turner
Amanda Root

directed by
Michael Attenborough
As a dramatist, Maxim Gorky has always been in the shadow of his friend and mentor Anton Chekhov. Whereas Chekhov’s plays are beautifully modulated tragicomic portrayals of the Russian provincial landowning classes, with an implicit awareness that their way of life is doomed, Gorky wrote overtly political plays in which radical social change was advocated. Chekhov’s stance was that of a humanist, while Gorky was a revolutionary socialist.

That is why, despite David Hare’s accessible, streamlined adaptation, Enemies ultimately still comes across as a sophisticated piece of agit prop. And entertaining though Michael Attenborough’s well-acted production is, the end result is a high-class political debate where the characters tend to represent particular points of view rather than being fully rounded individuals.

Written a hundred years ago while Gorky was in exile in America – ironically, for such a staunch anti-capitalist – following his involvement in the failed 1905 revolution, Enemies burns with polemical fervour as it anticipates the world-changing Bolshevik revolution a decade later on. (Interestingly, though, the play was banned in both Tsarist Russia and, until it was revised to become even more didactic, in the Soviet Union: the anti-authoritarian Gorky always had an uneasy relationship with the establishment no matter what it was.)

The action revolves around an industrial dispute in a provincial factory owned by the liberal landowner Yakov Bardin and his repressive managing director Mikhail Skrobotov. When the workers threaten to go on strike unless a violent foreman is dismissed, Skrobotov persuades Bardin to close the factory and call in the army to teach them a lesson. In the ensuing chaos, Skrobotov is shot dead by one of the workers and Captain Boboyedov arrests 18 people as murder suspects, but uses their interrogation as a pretext to crack down on socialist agitators.

The play opens with what seems a very Chekhovian scene of the leisured classes and their retainers sitting around a samovar in a garden, but the forbidding dark forest in the background hints at violence to come. Simon Higlett’s evocative design later changes to a rather dilapidated ballroom in the Bardins’ house where the kangaroo court is held. The sense is of a privileged lifestyle coming to an end.

In Gorky’s schematic approach the Bardin family embody a well-meaning but ineffectual bourgeoisie, while the Skrobotov family represent the professional managers of the status quo ruthlessly keeping in their place the factory workers, who are portrayed as a noble, self-sacrificing brotherhood. In true dialectical Marxist terms, the drama focuses on the class struggle, with characters’ destinies determined by their economic status in society – and, of course, in this analysis history is on the side of the proletariat.

To be fair, the impressive 21-strong cast do well to give their characters an individual force. As Zakhar Bardin, Sean Chapman suggests the right mix of goodwill and guilt, a man plainly more at ease with dealing with peasants than proles. His younger brother Yakov is hilariously played by Jack Davenport as a lazy buffoon, who seeks in vodka an escape from his own sense of uselessness. Amanda Root is Zakhar’s nice middle-class wife Polina who wants to help the poor without getting too close to them.

Sean Gilder is rather over the top as the snarling Mikhail Skrobotov, but after his demise returns to give a deliciously funny performance as the vain Captain Boboyedov. Stephen Noonan is quietly menacing as Mikhail’s brother Nikolai, the Assistant Prosecutor. And Graham Turner is the amusingly deferential and verbose clerk Pologii, an informer on his fellow-workers and thus a traitor to his class.

Gorky himself, of course, became a publicly acclaimed hero of the working class under the Soviet regime, the so-called ‘Father of Socialist Realism’, but as a fiercely independent man he fell out with Lenin and was probably murdered by intelligence agents acting on behalf of Stalin. One is tempted to ask, with friends like those who needs enemies?

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