A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Philistines”at 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.

Complaining 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.