Review: Philistines by Maxim Gorki in the National Theatre


Lyttelton Theatre in the National Theatre, runs until August 18. Director Howard Davies. Cast includes Phil Davies, Ruth Wilson, Rory Kinnear, Conleth Hill, Mark Bonnar, Justine Mitchell

Dysfunctional families engaging in argument and political discussion are all en vogue on the  London stage at the moment. The Royal Court gives us a contemporary American family in “The Pain and the Itch” whereas the National Theatre presents us with its equivalent in pre-revolutionary Russia in “Philistines”. What both plays have in common is that the members of their households continously argue with each other – and  that in outstanding brilliant dialogue. Maxim Gorki’s play has been ingeniously translated and updated by Andrew Upton (Mr Cate Blanchett to you) who gives a certain zing to even the most elaborate of Gorki’s phrases.

Everything in this play is movement and conflict as the different members of the Bessemenov household come through different doors and stairs, collide with each other in argument and go out again. In one memorable scene, after the botched suicide attempt of the daughter, the door to her room hardly ever closes as people rush in and out while from the front door curious members of the public rush in to see what has happened. Talk becomes discordant as people interrupt each other or play on the piano while someone else is talking. There is hardly a scene of dialogue  between two characters  where not a third charcters is involved in something completely different, even if it is just the carrying in of a heavy samovar. Howard Davies has beautifully orchestratesd this cacophony of different voices. The household is ruled by the dominant self-made man Vassilly (an outstanding Phil Davis who manages to give a thoroughly unpleasant character a human face) who only believes in materialism and status in life. Pitched against him is his idealistic foster-son Nil (played by a fiery Mark Bonnar) , a socialist activist, who believes you can change the world if only your will is strong enough. Standing between them are Vassilly’s children Pyotr and Tanya. Pyotr (a wonderful Rory Kinnear seething with frustration and anger) is a disillusioned law student who got suspended for revolutionary activities. Unable to embrace or completely reject his father’s materialism and Nil’s idealism and with his professinal future eclipsed, he evidently is stuck in this house. His sister Tanya ( a heartbreaking Ruth Wilson) is even more trapped than him, unable to fly a nest where neither her domineering father or Nil are able to love her. Surrounding them are a host of lodgers and servants such as the drunken nihilist Teterev (Conleth Hill) with a cynical view on life who probably has some of the best lines in the whole play and the widowed party-girl with revolutionary tendencies, Elena ( played with dry wit by Justine Mitchell). In the end, Vassilly betrays the revolutionary friends of his children to the police and both Nil and Pyotr are fleeing the flat with their prospective spouses, leaving a vulnerable Tanya in the clutches of her parents.

The first time I saw the play as a preview I was struck how moving and dynamic the play is under Howard Davies direction and a thoroughly strong performance through the ensemble cast.  The tragic underbelly of the play is lightened up by sarcastic wit and romantic entanglements. And how wonderfully flawed the characters are! Phil Davies’ Vassilly is a greedy, corrupt and anti-Semitic patriarch whose explosive fits of rage hide his vulnerability and feelings of inferiority towards his children.  Tanya is a tragic figure with a twist as she torments the servant girl Polya for her romanticism and being loved by Nil who in his turn has no qualms in leaving Tanya in despair after she witnessed their romantic encounter. Pyotr leaves his suicidal sister to enjoy the love of Elena who is amazingly cold hearted when it comes to other people’s pains: ” There’s a type of person seems to bring it on themselves…all they do is whinge…how alone they are and how dark and pointless life is and I just – Those people, I can’t help myself, I want them to be unhappy. I just. Do.” The play is like a dramatisation of W.H Auden poem “Musee de Beaux Arts” which states that suffering “takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

Watching the play a second time a few days ago, I could however understand a recent review that this is a “five star production of a three star play”. The ending is strangely flat. After Nil has left with Polya, you expect the long awaited final confrontation between Pyotr and his father. It starts promising enough with the frustrated Pyotr in full flow:”What are you trying to say?… That I owe you? that I obey, like what? An employee?  There are no more serfs. There is no more of this…what you think. What you imagine. Blind obedience. It’s not like that anymore.” And then nothing.  Neither father and son are able to defend their point. Pyotr virtually shuts up after stuttering that he wants to marry Elena as if he was Hermia and Helena in the final act of “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. And that from a character whose eloquence was evident in phrases like “hearing him, you’d think life was like some long-lost American uncle who will shower you with unexpected wealth” and who lectures his revolutionary friends on the futility of their tasks.  It is as if Gorky suddenly lost interest in the character and his conflict with his father which is all the more damaging to the play as Pyotr in his disillusionment towards both capitalism and socialism is a close contemporary of ours and probably the character we most identify with. It is left to Elena to give the final speech of the couple to Vassilly and his wife – and in Andrew Upton’s modernised version this ends rather crudely as “I will fuck him. All the time.”

Still, this is one of must-see productions of the year…


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Filed under howard davies, justine mitchell, london, mark bonnear, maxim gorky, national theatre, phil davies, philistines, review, rory kinnear, ruth wilson, theatre

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