'The Lower Depths' and 'Philistines'
Posted 22 May 2007 - 11:58 AM
Having bought tickets for 'Philistines' previews of which start this week from 23 May at the National Theatre, I noticed that the Finborough in Earls Court also has revived a Maxim Gorky play, 'The Lower Depths', scheduled for 15 May to 9 June. I discovered in an online search that both Kurosawa and Renoir made films of 'The Lower Depths', so it has a reputation. The RSC has staged both plays in the past.
I'll find out this week how good, bad or indifferent the National's chosen 'Philistines' is, but 'The Lower Depths' whose version at the Finborough has been written and directed by Phil Wilmott is bloody good. Action takes place in a doss house in provincial Russia, and the well designed set in this small theatre works for the twelve actors who make this an absorbing play. It's about people at rock bottom, it is bleak, and yet in this production we see that while each character has woes of his or her own, each has a modicum of virtue or an insight that when put together could save them. Watching this 1902 play, the year in which the action is set, you can see shaping from individual tragic lives the strands that power the later 1905 Revolution.
Oddly for a play, not one actor seems ill-chosen or weaker than others, though some roles have slightly more or less stage time. The characters were all familiar to Gorky whose harsh life and work in so many occupations enabled him to write from experience or about others from close quarters. The expression today would be 'knew more dinner-times than dinners'. The theatre programme is helpful here: a pound, but with hard information in return.
There is an aristocrat fallen on hard times. A watchful card player; a passionate and conniving landlady; a witty widow and a bereaved man; a visiting policeman selectively spotting and overlooking crime; a thief, a prostitute, a furrier, and a doss house skivvy. All have their stories, and there is another, an actor destroyed by drink who can express himself through previous learned parts, all such stories working as subplots. It is the old traveller whose presence and life-experience lifts a few spirits from the rut of despair. Bleak, yes, but here is humanity. It's a production that, several days since I saw it, has taken up space in my mind. I hope when awards get dished out, that this production wins one or two. (http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk)
So, will 'Philistines' at the National compare? Last weekend I came across this article (http://arts.guardian...2083157,00.html) by Andrew Upton whose version of 'Philistines' will be staged. It provides some history and context, and it has whetted my appetite.
Posted 22 May 2007 - 12:49 PM
Posted 22 May 2007 - 01:47 PM
Me too - I will try to see both.
Posted 24 May 2007 - 12:08 PM
Posted 28 May 2007 - 05:18 PM
"Lower Depths" is well worth a look for anyone in the area, I found it very interesting. This venue is worth supporting.
Posted 28 May 2007 - 11:22 PM
In June and early July, we're presenting the first professional London performance for over fifty years of Ethel Smyth's brilliant comic opera 'The Boatswain's Mate'.
In July, we're presenting the centenary production of Hubert Henry Davies's dark Edwardian comedy 'The Mollusc'.
In August, we're presenting T. S. Eliot's little-known verse comedy 'The Confidential Clerk'.
These will all be directed by exciting young director Tom Littler and staged on Sunday and Monday evenings throughout the period. See www.primaveraproductions.com or www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk for more information.
They're really exciting and unjustly neglected plays - and the theatre does indeed do some great work.
Posted 29 May 2007 - 04:17 PM
I'll try to get back here this evening to comment on what I thought of 'Philistines'.
Posted 30 May 2007 - 11:36 AM
'Philistines' is set in the home of Vassily Bessemonov, a comfortably-off decorator in early 20th century Russia, with wife Akulina, grown-up children Tanya, Pyotr and foster son Nil, servants and some lodgers. Tanya is pessimistic and lethargic, Pyotr has been suspended from university, in contrast to train driver Nil who works regular shifts and is happy with himself but at odds with the status quo, and thus all are a provocation to Vassily Bessemonov, played so well by Phil Davis.
Nil will get the girl, whereas sister Tanya can't get anything right. To the anxious and student politically active Pyotr (Rory Kinnear) trying to justify himself to an unimpressed father, the playwright adds freer spirited lodgers like the lively Elena (Justine Mitchell) and laid-back, witty Teterev (Conleth Hill), all good performances. The result is a set of tensions in a conflictual household that reflects something of what is going on in the outside world.
I believe this play has been known as 'The Petty Bourgeois'. Reading the programme notes from 'The Lower Depths' at the Finborough, however, I discovered that there was an early play by Gorky from about this time, 1902, that was known as 'The Smug Citizen', and I wonder if that and 'Philistines' are one and the same play.
Bessemonov reckons he is paying for everything, and is furious at the lack of respect shown him by those he thinks are taking him for granted. His wife (Stephanie Jacob) who can hardly get a word in edgeways and the servant Stepanida, played by stalwart Maggie McCarthy, might think otherwise. Relative newcomer Ruth Wilson as Tanya has the problem of strongly portraying a wimpy character in this comic tragedy.
For the first twenty minutes this play seemed quiet and slow and low-lit, but Gorky in this adaptation by Andrew Upton knows where it is going and what it has to do. The ensemble of nineteen actors works well with some crunchy material in a play set in one nice-looking location that cleverly uses the width and depth of the Lyttelton stage. The cast trooped on stage at the end to general acclaim.
I knew Gorky mostly through his autobiographical books 'My Struggle' and 'My Universities', parts of a trilogy, and his play 'The Zykovs' seen many years ago. It has been 'The Lower Depths' and 'Philistines' and probably my age and receptiveness to such, that have justified a feeling I had that here was yet another old playwright, like Ibsen, Shaw, Barker, Galsworthy all recently staged at the likes of the National, the Orange Tree and the Finborough, that would be worth seeing. Those plays about their times say something to us about our times, and that sort of thing is always likely to intrigue potential audiences.
Posted 31 May 2007 - 09:27 AM
The first newspaper review for 'Philistines' that I have seen, gives it the full five stars and is in this morning's 'Guardian':
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