Maxim Gorky, in a new version by Andrew Upton
Review by Philip Fisher
Maxim Gorky is proving popular at the moment, with the opening of his first play, Philistines, following hard on the heels of Phil Willmott's production at the Finborough of The Lower Depths, another play that first saw the light of day in 1902.
Philistines created massive controversy when Stanislavsky directed the premiere for the Moscow Art Theatre on tour in St Petersburg. The whole censorship committee had a day out, while police and cavalry surrounded the theatre. When the play transferred to Moscow though, it had Russia's finest in the cast with Chekhov's wife Olga Knipper playing Elena and Meyerhold, Pyotr.
This was, of course, Chekhov's heyday, not to mention the period of Fiddler on the Roof, the new production of which opened at the Savoy the previous night. Philistines has the lassitude and ennui of the great man's work, but rather than exploring the problems of the disenfranchised landed gentry, Gorky focuses on the urban middle classes, who face their own difficulties.
The action is set in Bunny Christie's recreation of the highly respectable home of Vassily and Akulina. Covering the whole width of the Lyttelton, this is an absolutely gigantic house where familial warmth has lost out to the power of money.
These Dickensian ancients prove a trial to everybody visiting but especially their own children. Phil Davis is memorable as a sour patriarch who hasn't a good word for anybody but enjoys the sound of his own ranting, while Stephanie Jacob plays the moaning wife whose role in life is to disapprove.
They ensure that the household reflects the weather, pouring rain throughout most of the first three acts. Their son Pyotr has been chucked out of university for getting too political and struggles to lift his depression. Like almost everyone else in the house, he is suffering from a bad dose of unrequited passion.
Pyotr's target is cheery, loose-living widow Elena, played with great verve by Justine Mitchell. This flame-haired beauty seems out of reach, partly because she oozes sex but more so since his ambitious, ultra-conservative parents could not accept such a daughter-in-law.
If anything, his sister Tanya is even worse off. The young woman, twice described by her father as a "scowling old maid", is played by Ruth Wilson who offers the damaged, bird-like stage presence associated with Victoria Hamilton and has recently made a big name for herself as the BBC's Jane Eyre.
Tanya's passion is directed towards Mark Bonnar's Nil, a man who has practically been adopted by the family but loves their servant Polya, played by Susannah Fielding, rather than the borderline suicidal daughter of the house.
These loving shenanigans are then brightened and mirrored by an assortment of lodgers and drunkards led by Conleth Hill as Teterev, a man who loves philosophising and flirting but is destined to remain single.
Philistines is often amusing, with the real highlight Elena's bawdy attack on the old people, finally putting them into their places and shutting them up. With a livelier audience than the one on opening night, this scene might well have generated cheers and applause, so well was it conceived.
The Australian creator of this new version, Andrew Upton, might be best known as the husband of Cate Blanchett but obviously knows how to write a racy script and, with the assistance of director Howard Davies, maintains pace and interest throughout this three-hour long bittersweet comedy.
Gorky will always suffer by comparison with Chekhov but even if Upton's language can sometimes jar and on occasions the construction seems too well-made and schematic, Howard Davies has created an enjoyable revival that should continue the Gorky resurrection.