Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Review The Lower Depths

The Lower Depths
by Maxim Gorky
Translated by Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair

Memoirs of A Super-Tramp

Maxim Gorky had of course more claim to fame than being the lover of politician Nick Clegg's great great aunt. Before several nominations for the Nobel Prize for Literature, he tramped across the Russian Empire, using the experience to fuel his later crusading politics, journalism, books and plays.

The Lower Depths, written at the beginning of the twentieth century, is an ensemble piece charting a few tumultuous days in a doss house, literally the lowest of the low.  According to that worthy tome, Wikipedia, it was subtitled Scenes From Russian Life and it has the vigour of a Hogarthian progress  as the types and their individual fates crisscross the stage.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson  takes on the ambitious task of mounting a production in the fringe Arcola space with an eighteen strong cast clad in a mash-up of modern costumes and accents. The action revolves in part around the arrival of elderly super tramp, Luka (Jim Bywater) who, with a touch of a Capraesque guardian angel, scatters a little humanity on the suffering and brutalized inhabitants.

But he has a tough job. The dank netherworld with its echoing dripping pipes is the property of grasping and religiose landlord Kostyliov (Ian Barritt) and his snarling wife Vassilissa (Ruth Everett). She is cuckolding her elderly spouse with one of the lodgers, virile thief Vasska (Doug Rao) but his eye has wandered over to her younger sister red-haired Natasha (Katie Hart).

It's a lengthy evening where the translation of Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair brings to the fore, we thought, a strange sprinkling of the Russian literary masters combined with the self conscious style of the Moscow Arts Theatre combined with Gorky's gritty, if sometimes schematic, social realism.

OK, we'll come clean (cleaner than the folks who live in this grimy cellar at least). We're not experts on Russian literature, or anything Russian, but we've  read Dostoevsky's tale of murder and spiritual redemption Crime And Punishment, seen Gorky's other plays Philistines and Summerfolk. in translation again, and have an inkling of what Tolstoy is about.

Bywater's Luka as Gorky's secular pilgrim manages to  avoid pure sentimentality. Everett's Vassilissa slouches convincingly as the venal wife. Simon Scardifield's actor is poisoned by alcohol and losing not just his mind, but his lines. James Simmons's Baron, born into a titled family and a former government official, battles with low life Nastya (Jade Williams), aching for the love she finds in cheap novelettes. The louche Satin - Jack Klaff - and Rao's muscular crook and lover Vasska are all distinctive characters. 

Nevertheless this can't disguise this is a play, with its actorly alternte turns, that could do with some trimming, It may naturally have been revolutionary back in 1902 with its stew  of literature, corruption and death laced with black humour. But despite some inventive use of accents to give it modern currency,  a more radical translation might bring something more to the surface. Still, it's an amber light for a classic play we're glad to have seen.  

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