by Maxim Gorky
in a new version by Andrew Upton
Set a couple of years before the 1905 Revolution in Russia, this is Gorky’s first play. It combines the then radical and audience alienating style of Naturalism with political analysis and examines the relationships between and actions of a family, their friends and lodgers. It’s territory also occupied by Chekov but this is more overtly political in intent. And over all it is both very funny and dramatically intense.
At first the action concerns Tanya and Pyotr children of Vassily and Akulina. The children’s lives are adrift. They don’t know what to do with themselves, their expectations are always disappointed and they are alienated from their parents. The father Vassily is a bully and a bigot (brought to stupendously vituperative life by an outstanding Phil Davis).
Also part of the household is Nil, who is Vassily’s foster son. He – unlike Vassily’s own children – works for a living and is politically radical. He is in love with the servant Polya.
As well as these two, there are the lodgers Teterev a drunken cynic and Elena who is lively and life enhancing. In addition there is Perchikin Polya’s father a good-hearted drifter.
The action seems inconsequential at times – but it illustrates a society that is trapped in decay and in need of change. The means of change are there to be debated. But there is no consensus about the way forward and the forces of reaction (in the shape of Vasilly in particular) lurk to destructive effect.
In the end Vasilly betrays the political radicals – who include members of his own family. He loses both his children and his lodgers; rejected by all. In a sense this prefigures the way in which the old order in Tsarist Russia will be rejected and forever changed by events in the 20th century.
Directed with élan by Howard Davies, Gorky’s once banned play richly deserves this spirited revival.