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FringeReview UK 2017

The Lower Depths

Arcola Theatre, London

Genre: Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Arcola Theatre, Studio 1


Low Down

Mehmet Ergen’s Revlutionary double-bill at the Arcola kick-starts with this timely revival of Gorky’s 1902 The Lower Depths. Directed by Helena Kaut-Hauson in the deconstructed low-tech scaffolding doss-house of designer Iona McLeish, is complemented by a rationale: the somewhat Russian clothes sashay to contemporary edges to make a point: the play’s not wrenched from its period but drags the present back to it. Till February 11th.


There’s a distinct trend growing to theme trilogies or pairs of Russian plays. The Chichester/National Chekhov season is here complemented in more modest scale but not scope by the Arcola’s director Mehmet Ergen whose theming has reason: the Revolutionary centenary of 1917. Ergen‘s putting on and himself directing The Cherry Orchard in February is preceded by the play that the Moscow Art Theatre put on before it in 1902: Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths. Like the National/Chichester company, many cast members are common to both; indeed Jade Williams comes straight from the trilogy to appear in these Arcola productions. Directed by Helena Kaut-Hauson the deconstructed low-tech scaffolding doss-house of designer Iona McLeish is complemented by a rationale: the somewhat Russian clothes sashay to contemporary edges to make a point: the play’s not wrenched from its period but drags the present back to it.


That this work bursts between Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard shows how unprecedented it is, though Gorky and indeed Chekhov had been writing grim enough stories. Gorky’s genius for social realism (he coined ‘socialist realism’ but wasn’t obliged to adhere to it) and selective reportage wasn’t always matched by formal adroitness. The Lower Depths the first play he attempted presents difficulties: key characters simply vanish in Act Four, their fates sketched in. The abrupt finale, straight out of a certain Chekhov one, gave even the Moscow Arts Theatre pause. It’s a vividly long evening, and holds the attention, but a huge challenge to pull into the shaggy shabby masterpiece it is.


We’re plunged into a dosshouse of endings-up and false and real beginnings. A locksmith’s wife coughs her death out from TB whilst her husband indifferently waits for her demise, and only then becomes human. Luka (a bespectacled, deceptively bumbling Jim Bywater) enters preaching a kind of Tolstoyan hope replete with Siberian fables of his own life. This echoes further than The Iceman Cometh, perhaps evokes a peculiarly American redemption we’ve seen in its dramatists since. Luka soothes the dying Anna, comforts the self-deluding romancer Nastya (an obsessively wounded Jade Williams) continually provoked by the ‘fallen’ Baron, suave but hollow James Simmons.


Crucially he encourages Doug Rao’s virile thief Vasska Pepel – who’s thrown over the landlord’s sexy but vicious wife Vassilissa (Ruth Everett notable in these roles) – to elope with her gentle sister Natasha, an appealing Katie Hart. Natasha’s been victimised and finally has her legs scalded by Vassilissa. Vasska and Natasha have circled each other for ages. Brought together, it’s Vassilissa’s vengeance on them and her husband that triggers the play’s crisis. Luka’s already given notice and this mysterious agent also vanishes afterwards. A benign eavesdropper and intervener, he also presciently sees his exit and Bywater’s quietist beneficence softens what might be seen (perhaps unfairly, even by Gorky) as running away.


What Act Four manages is to concentrate on the plight of those remaining. The alcoholic Actor, who’d tried to recall his old lines to Luka (who tells him of a clinic) is brought out by Simon Scardfield’s teetering wreck of a talented man too far gone perhaps to redeem himself, but now havers too near the possibility to stay as he is. The cardsharp Satin – a drunkenly balletic Jack Klaff, whose energy dominates here – starts spouting Lukaisms, and though far more than Luka an ambivalent character, we take both of them seriously as Satin’s intelligence plays with his previous nihilism. The stories of the Baron, Bubnov the hatter (unsentimental Mark Jax who’s pleased Anna’s cough ceases in death) and Abhin Galeya as Anna’s husband Kleshch the OCD locksmith each give or intimate a narrative, each self-realising, particularly Bubnov.


There’s fine support too from Jude Akuwudike as uncle and drunken ineffectual policeman, and the martially protesting Kvashnia Tricia Kelly, a comic turn who finally marries him. The younger cast, some at college warms the production as a nursery of talent over the despairs they portray.


There’s an undeniably drop of continuity in Act Four, an energy pause not from actors whose fleshings-out and cameos enrich the play: but in further performances the pace will soon gradually lope over the rucks of Gorky’s emerging theatrical genius. It just needs help, as do the characters. Coming to this production, revolutionary or not, uncannily recalls Alexander’s Zeldin’s Love, at the National in December. There, some critics sat quietly weeping. Gorky’s brutality cuts across his gentleness, but his curious Marxian Christianity (which few went along with) washes back over that too. We emerge drier-eyed from this production, but it’s a bracing winter play, and all too grimly calls us out to act. It’s a seminal drama too, rarely seen, making this an essential pilgrimage.