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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National Theatre (Lyttelton), London

By Clive Hirschhorn

  Phil Davis (rear) as Vassily Bessemenov

Though Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekhov were contemporaries who charted the collapse of the old order in Russia, Gorky was a judgmental, moralising didact whose plays were overtly political, whereas Chekhov, in the purist sense of the term, was a dramatist who allowed his characters to speak with their own voices. Which is why he is the greater of the two playwrights and the more admired.

That said, the commitment to Gorky's vision of a new Russia and his championing of the downtrodden, gave him a unique voice in pre-Revolutionary drama - as recent revivals of his plays have shown.

His first play, Philistines, written in 1901 (and also known as The Smug Citizen, The Middle Class or The Petty Bourgeoise depending on the translator) may not have the impact of his most famous play, The Lower Depths, which he wrote the following year, but it's quite a debut just the same.

Driven more by character than by plot (what little narrative there is is saved for the end of its four acts), Philistines- in a lively, colloquial new version by Andrew Upton - is set in the large, gloom-strewn home of Vassily Bessemenov (Phil Davis) and his long-suffering wife Akulina (Stephanie Jacob).

Vassilly, a bourgeois decorator, is an anti-Semitic bully whose frustrated son Pyotr (Rory Kinnear) has been suspended from University for political activism, while his plain, loveless daughter Tanya (Ruth Wilson) is quietly suffering a breakdown which ultimately leads to an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

In contrast, a foster-son Nil (Mark Bonnar), for whom the cup of life is half-full rather than half-empty, has had about as much as he can take of his asphyxiating father, and is planning his escape from this squabbling brood of nihilists with his lover, the family maid Polya (Susannah Fielding).

Though financially well off, the mean-spirited Vassilly adds to his wealth by letting rooms in this heartbreak house to a variety of lodgers - including Teterev (Conleth Hill) a philosophizing alcoholic, and Elena (Justine Mitchell) a free-spirited widow who is requitedly in love with Pyotr.

Brilliantly orchestrating the comings and goings of this motley collection of folk, with their over-lapping speech cadences, insecurities, desires and frustrations, director Howard Davies creates a world in embryo as the inhabitants of this debilitating household, under Vassilly's constant, small-minded interference, attempt, with varying stages of success, to free themselves of his claustrophobic infleunce.

The performances - especially Kinnear and Wilson as the put-upon Bessemenov offspring caught in the web of their suffocating father's weaving, are excellent. So is Conleth Hill, the wise but aimless Teterev.

As the domineering Vassilly, a rasping Phil Davis takes command of the stage without quite having the vocal heft the role demands. His acting is impeccable, but he's prone to shouting a great deal, which, given how much rowing takes place, can be wearying.

Still, this is a terrific showcase for some fine ensemble playing, and the forbidding set and lighting by Bunny Christie and Neil Austin respectively, contribute outstandingly to this red-letter production. This is the National Theatre at its commanding best.


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