Full marks to Salisbury Playhouse for staging this rarer than hen's teeth production of Gorky's 1906 play which was only given its British professional premiere by the RSC in 1990 and which has not been performed since.
Contrary to the suggestion of the title, the show, running at around two-and-a- three-quarter hours, is far from uncivilised, offering a world already familiar from the plays and stories of Gorky's more familiar compatriot, Chekhov; a world of peasants, petty officials and more or less distressed gentlefolk; a Russia on the brink of cataclysmic social, political and economic upheaval.
Just as Summerfolk had its genesis in Gorky's own encounter with middle-class dacha life, so Verkhopolye, the setting for Barbarians, was based on Arzamas where Gorky spent several months in political exile in 1902.
Gorky found his time there a particularly bleak experience, prompting him to comment: later: "I do not think there is any other country where people talk such a lot and think so incoherently and fruitlessly as they do so in Russia."
Gorky uses the play to satirise the old 'wooden' Russia, personified by the despotic mayor Redozubov, whose power and dignity is threatened by the appearance of Yegor Cherkoon and Tsyganov, engineers, who have come to build a railway and whose arrival signals the dawn of a new 'iron age'.
Slated by Gorky's contemporary, the poet Alexander Blok, as "a play of types and characters written carelessly and with an incredibly large cast, many of which are simply rehashed from before", Barbarians lacks an obvious structure or action, though even Blok acknowledged the play had some merit.
The production had already attracted warm reviews from two national newspaper critics by the time I came to see it. Unfortunately, while I applaud the ambition of the theatre in staging this play - which requires a massive cast of 22 actors - and the simple elegance of the design by Nancy Surman, I was unable to share the enthusiasm of others for most of the performances here.
There is, perhaps, always an element of English people standing around, pretending to be Russian, to many adaptations of plays by Chekhov and the like; a, perhaps, inevitable feeling of dissimulation, which requires energy, conviction and chutzpah to overcome. Unfortunately as soon as the lights rose and I saw the beard on one of the Russian peasants, my heart sank.
It didn't really rise thereafter. Credit where credit is due; Terry Taplin as Pavlin, the 'local weather vane' offered a nicely-judged comic performance. Also standing out from the ranks was Tricia Kelly as Bogayevskya. But for the main part, the acting was uneven, played either as broad farce (Michael Stroud as the Mayor) or English sitcom (Jay Villers as Tsyganov, who largely reprised his performance in Betrayal at Bristol Old Vic earlier this year).
At one point a character holds forth to Tsyganov on the need to avoid the second rate, such are the demands on one's time and attention. Unfortunately this production of Barbarians lived up to this very sound observation
Reviewer: Pete Wood