Unlike his contemporary Chekhov, it’s not only Russia’s pre-revolutionary privileged class who populate Maxim Gorky’s plays but a hostile and starving proletariat. This work, which the political dramatist and activist wrote from his St Petersburg prison during Russia’s aborted 1905 revolution, gives a sense of them circling the home of scientist Protasov.
In this new version by Andrew Upton, Protasov’s sister Liza describes their home as an oasis in a black, hostile forest, although in Howard Davies’s wonderful production it’s more of a high-walled fortress.
Oblivious to the condition of his fellow man, Protasov conducts chemistry experiments to advance mankind.
Meanwhile, his neglected wife Yelena flirts with the artist Vageen, the lonely Melaniya dotes on Protasov, her melancholy brother, the vet Boris, expresses undying love for Liza. She is the only one who can see the coming storm — until, that is, the peasants are no longer a menacing, largely unseen presence and breach the walls.
Davies’s gripping production rather brilliantly emphasises that barrier between the privilege within and the poverty without by giving his audience a peasant’s perspective of Protasov’s home – a high dirty wall. In a moment of exquisitely staged transition, the whole edifice sinks into the Lyttelton’s stage, giving the impression that we, the audience, are rising above it until it is possible to see over the parapet and into Bunny Christie’s design of the cavernous, chic-shabby interior.
Upton’s open, unfussy translation has a lightness of touch that serves well the ideas and arguments about art and science with which Protasov and his circle are obsessed. But there are moments when Upton’s obsession with accessibility gets the better of his script. Exchanges such ‘What’s your problem?” followed by “How long have you got?” and lines such as “In yer dreams” feel not only colloquial (which is fine) but like an oddly British strain of sarcasm (which is not).
But this is a small gripe in a superbly performed production that is destined to be one of the finest of the year. The charge of politics would count for little if the relationships here were not so beautifully observed.
Justine Mitchell, as Protasov’s ignored wife, moves from a distracted self-indulgence with her artist fancy man (Gerald Kyd) in tow, to a steely observer of her sexless marriage. Geoffrey Streatfeild, as her brilliant husband, transmits a kind of emotional autism in response to her needs that makes you want to slap him.
And there is terrific work, too, from Paul Higgins as Boris and Lucy Black as Melaniya, who are each in love with their hosts — Boris with Liza, Melaniya with Protasov. Meanwhile, the town is racked with cholera and the revolution cannot be far away. The effect is something akin to a party on the sinking Titanic.