the National Theatre, Maxim Gorky’s first play (1902), concerns
not only the turbulent political chaos in Russia at that time,
but its effect on a family conflict of old against young, rebellion
against conformity, and freedom against restraint.
In a sharp new version by Andrew Upton, the dialogue crackles
as suburban parents try and fail to understand their offspring.
In their comfortable living room white-bearded Vasssily
Bessemenov, brilliantly played by Phil Davis, insists “This is
my house; I am master here,” to his unhappy son Pyotr (an outstanding
Rory Kinnear) and neurotic daughter Tanya, who is heart-breaking
in a performance by Ruth Wilson. “Life. People shout, fight, eat and go to bed. When they wake up? They start shouting again.” The
philosophizing lodger Teterev (Conleth Hill) aptly describes the
atmosphere of the household.
to Stephanie Jacob, who creates staunch and strong wife Akulina,
prosperous carpenter Vassily insists that they have over-educated
their incomprehensible children. Restless Pyotr, suspended from
law school in Moscow for his radical activities, feels demeaned
collecting rents for his unbending father, whom he regards as
a tyrant, a bastion of conservatism.
As enacted by Mr. Kinnear, Pyotr’s idealism, anger, frustration,
and inability to strike out against his stronger adversary is
reminiscent of Hamlet.
Friends of the
younger Bessemenovs are considerably more cheerful, and arrive
to report on the subversive play they are rehearsing with some
of the soldiers stationed locally.
Two romances are in progress.
Pyotr cannot get the courage to propose to lodger Elena
(an appealing Justine Mitchell), whose former experiences of marriage
and widowhood find her still optimistic. Disappointed teacher
Tanya is unable to express her love for Nil (Mark Bonnar), a foster
son of the Bessemenovs, who is a metal worker.
In one of director Howard Davies’ most moving scenes, Nil
proposes to servant girl Polya (Susannah Fielding), as Tanya overhears,
sitting on stairs in near darkness and weeping silently.
After a suicide
attempt, life resumes, just as described above. Mr. Davies creates
a fine ensemble with his large cast, and ends the play with a
surprise effect as economical as it is startling. (National Theatre,
Lyttelton, South Bank, London SE1; phone: 020 7452 3000.
Performance schedule and tickets: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.