Review: The Lower Depths ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Review: The Lower Depths

The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky, directed by Ariette Taylor. Designed by Adrienne Chisolm, lighting by Emma Valente. With Adam Pierchalski, Bessie Holland, Alex Menglet, Chloe Armstrong, Denis Moore, Genevieve Picot, Evan Jureidini, Greg Stone, Luke Elliot, Heather Bolton, Malcolm Robertson, Marco Chiappi, Paul English, Natalia Novikova, Stewart Morritt and Syd Brisbane. Ariette Taylor Productions @ fortyfive downstairs until November 29.

Although there are persistent rumours that he was murdered on Stalin's orders, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, the founder of social realism, was the literary poster boy of the Bolshevik Revolution. His early life was of exemplary harshness: born Aleksei Peshkov in Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, he was orphaned at an early age and sent out to work. He ran away from home when he was 12, and became an itinerant worker, barely escaping starvation. His teenage experiences prompted the adoption of his pseudonym Gorky, which means "bitter".

Among many other temporary jobs, he worked as a dishwasher on a Volga steamer, where the cook taught him to read, fostering the passion for writing that ultimately shaped his life. As a rising young writer he met Anton Chekhov, who urged him to write a play. He subsequently wrote two for the Moscow Arts Theatre, the most famous of which is The Lower Depths. The characters in this play are supposedly inspired by real people Gorky met at the Bugrov Homeless Shelter in Nizhny Novgorod. The Lower Depths is an unsparing portrait of Russia's underclass, a wretched and doomed group of people who scrabble for a living by whatever means they can - thievery, prostitution, piece work - and whose savagery is most often turned against each other.

It's also an essay on the choice between facing harsh truths or embracing delusions that make life bearable. The play itself reaches no conclusions: in the brutal social order that sifts some human beings to an irredeemable bottom, political or social insight can bring with it a crushing weight of despair, to which fantasy might be preferable. A delusion, says Gorky, can be life-saving, bringing hope where none exists and prompting action where despair brings only self-destructive apathy and cynicism. Only the strong and free can face the truth.

In many ways this production is a logical evolution, both in practice and philosophy, from the late '90s work of the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, which was founded by director Ariette Taylor and Daniel Keene. This is reinforced by the cast; seven of the 17 performed with the KTTP, and several are founding members. And, as with the KTTP, this production is graced with some astounding performances from some of our best actors.

The KTTP began its work in 1997 in the Brotherhood of St Laurence Warehouse in Fitzroy. The plays were performed as poor theatre, using the furniture that was available in the warehouse for their sets. The company's early and most successful work was about people who seldom reach our main stages, those forced, because of circumstance or birth, to the invisible edges of society. As with Gorky, the plays Keene wrote for the KTTP examined the dehumanising processes of poverty and social marginalisation.

Keene and Gorky's work is certainly fuelled by social anger, but neither observe a simple politics. Gorky's Marxism led him to believe that culture was a redemptive force in social revolution, and he protested strongly to Lenin, whom he knew personally, against the Bolshevik persecution of intellectuals. On its premiere, his unsentimental portrayal of poverty in The Lower Depths caused revulsion for what was seen as its dark pessimism. Neither Keene nor Gorky traffick in the politics of empathy, the easy pity that is as easily forgotten: rather, they insist on the difficult and mutual recognition of humanity in even the least sympathetic and most brutalised of their characters. Ultimately, both are interested in the erasure of the line between Them and Us, the pitied and the pitying.

The Lower Depths is presented in a robust collaborative translation from a text by Alex Menglet, which sounded very good to my ear. Rather like Chekhov's early play Platonov, it's an exercise in realism. Beyond a couple of events which occur with a kind of random melodrama, nothing much happens. There is little attention to the dramatic shaping of plot: rather, Gorky is concerned with the disorderliness, the inartistic lack of purpose, which informs life itself. The play consists of the various characters arguing, playing cards or drinking; merely passing the time in ways that were later aestheticised in Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

What plot there is revolves around the arrival at the boarding house of Luka (Alex Menglet), an apparent innocent who believes, unlike any of the other characters, that every human being matters. He is a kind of derelict Pollyanna, spreading light among the inmates by recognising what each of them needs to believe to bear his or her life (or death, as the case may be); but it becomes clear that his comforting stories are not the fruit of naivety, but rather of a clear-sighted compassion, even a certain stark realism.

Meanwhile, a squalid domestic drama emerges between the miserly and exploitative landlord Kostylyov (Denis Moore), his vicious wife Vassilissa (Heather Bolton) and her lover the thief Vasska (Stewart Morritt). Vasska is in love with Vassilisa's sister, Natasha (Chloe Armstrong), who will have nothing to do with him. His passion arouses Vassilisa's jealousy, and she constantly beats her sister, and meanwhile plots the murder of her husband.

These events flow through the daily life of the boarding house, which is peopled by a various cast of characters. The Actor (Greg Stone) is a hopeless alcoholic whose memory has been largely erased by his addiction, the Baron (Marco Chiappi) is a man who has known better times ("I used to drink coffee before I got out of bed!") A locksmith, Klestch (Malcom Robertson) works constantly on a lock that can't be fixed while his wife Anna (Genevieve Picot) dies pathetically of consumption close by. The capmaker Bubnov (Syd Brisbane) and other characters provide a chorus of brutal scepticism (when Anna dies, Bubnov comments that at least that means she will stop coughing).

With 17 characters and a sprawling structure, the challenges of mounting this play ought to be obvious. Ariette Taylor's production demonstrates her directorial weaknesses as well as her strengths. For all the quality of the cast, the acting is uneven, with the less experienced performers tending to fall into mystifying caricature. Even deeply capable actors such as Heather Bolton or Chloe Armstrong seem oddly subdued.

On the other hand, there are superlative performances from Syd Brisbane, Paul English, Stewart Morritt and Marco Chiappi. It is a particular pleasure to watch Alex Menglet accessing his full abilities, rather than merely providing comic relief in a cameo role. His portrayal of Luka is multifaceted, detailed and moving. Greg Stone is at the top of his considerable game as the Actor; he lights up the stage with a performance that is almost an essay on acting, creating a role that is itself a role, a man whose transparent facade constantly crumbles into pathetic self-realisation.

This is acting as good as you will see, and it often transcends the limitations of the production. When it does, the result can be electrifying. But for the first half, the direction is distracting, seldom achieving the moment-to-moment focus that Gorky's writing requires to maintain compelled attention. Adrienne Chisolm's design doesn't help: the pillars in the midst of fortyfive downstairs - which have been craftily avoided in other productions - stand in the main performing space, causing acute problems with sightlines: actors are constantly disappearing behind them in the midst of speeches. Moreover, some of the action occurs in a kitchen behind the stage, obscured from most of the audience.

The intrusion of such mundane irritations might have worked if there was a sense that they were more than ad hoc. But there was little feeling until after interval that the production was more than a series of brilliant individual performances strung together with some pretty choreography. The stage action was all too dislocated in the opening scenes, a problem emphasised by the uneven acting. Once the stage focused on a more conventional mise en scene around a table in the second half, the play livened up. Unlike Chekhov's Ivanov, which Taylor directed in a revelatory production three years ago, Gorky's play is too unwieldy for a show to rely solely on performance and text: it needs a stern intelligence creating theatrical shape around it.

For these and other reasons, the production doesn't wholly escape romanticising its subject. Its Russian protagonists are sufficiently distanced for their realism to remain historicised, even exoticised, rather than making them uncomfortably present in their human dilemmas. It's worth seeing for the acting, some of which is remarkable; but it ultimately seems a decadent and swollen shadow of the beauty and complex political power of the first KTTP productions in that Fitzroy warehouse.

Picture: Chloe Armstrong in The Lower Depths. Photo: Jeff Busby

Disclosures: I am married to Daniel Keene and was a member of the Board of the KTTP for the length of its existence.


Born Dancin' said...

I recently heard an actorly friend of mine - who loved The Lower Depths, incidentally - suggesting that to praise the acting in a work is to damn it, in a way. You shouldn't notice actors acting, was his gist. I think he was talking about the gap between actor and character, and how applauding the actor's ability to traverse that gap actually highlights the artifice. As someone who sees a lot of theatre I'm not sure I agree, since I frequently see the same actors in lots of productions and inevitably compare them; moreover, the artifice of theatre isn't really a problem for me, as such.

But I do wonder if our praising of 'acting' isn't itself a kind of critical decadence, a mannerist indulgence.

A hwell, such is art.

Alison Croggon said...

Interesting comment, BD. I think I know what your friend might mean: ie, the best acting is the acting that doesn't appear to be acting. But that's true of almost all high skilfulness, which is among other things about concealing skill in favour of what the skill is supposed to reveal. Anyway, that kind of skill is part of what I admire in a performance. And I too like its artifice, which is a complex truthfulness...

On the other hand, if you're going along to a show to write about it, you have a duty to notice performance as part of the experience. Which is probably a Taoist kind of declension from the Way - as you say, a kind of decadence. (In the same way that you have Integrity when there is no Tao, you have Criticism when you're not being suspended in the experience of theatre...)

Born Dancin' said...

Or you could be Zen. If you meet theatre on the road, kill it. I think that's a pretty good koan for theatremakers. Maybe not so much for critics, of course.

Alison Croggon said...

It seems to be a motto for some crrritics. But then, people in glass houses etc...

Anonymous said...

You two should get a room.

Anonymous said...

You're too kind, Alison. My reaction after the show was -- Well, that's 15 hours of my life I'm never gonna get back.

Mr B

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Mr B - I've been wondering if I have been "kind". It's not exactly a positive review. My major priority was to try to be as accurate as possible.

Anonymous said...

Most interesting and delicately expressed. Having been enchanted by Taylor's Ivanov, we turned up for the Gorky with great expectations, which were duly dashed.

We went to the first or second preview, and were startled to find the actors(mainly)bawling at each other and rushing and crashing thuddingly in and out of the acting space again and again and again. It was like being stranded on the Hume Highway as yet another thespian juggernaut came roaring past, missing you by a whisker. Menglet as you say always seems manifestly a far more considerable performer than the parts he is given, but God it was a trying first half. (We ran like hell at interval.)

I should add that the whole audience just sat there shellshocked when the lights went up at half-time, as the windows were still rattling. There was NO applause. It was nice to have some quiet.

Ivanov was superbly orchestrated and played, but the Gorky seemed so stale and the presentation so forced that it was hard to imagine anything even tolerable let alone interesting happening in the second half. (So I'm glad someone had a nice time in Act 2.)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ethel

It sounds as if it picked up considerably after the previews. I was pretty bored through the first half, if compensated by some of the performances, which kept me awake: but there wasn't that sense of being pummelled, which can be, I admit, hard to take.

Though sometimes it's difficult with Ariette Taylor's productions - as with Ivanov, the cast has changed since opening night, and so it's hard to know what he production will be two night's hence! I mean, even more than usual...

Give my love to Ern -

robyn holland said...

such negativity!! i went to see 'lower depths' last night and thought it was absolutely fabulous! such great talented actors! why do people want to pick up any little negative thing and write about!u should all be proud of such great acting! i loved its loudness and vibrance!! there was lots of clapping at interval and also closing! i want to congratulate ALL the cast! i had a great night and couldgo back again tonight! grow up all u negative people u sound like grade 3 kids!
bravo to all connected u have done a fine job x

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Robyn - I'm glad you enjoyed the show.

Just to explain - this is a critical blog. It's not about being either positive or negative; more about attempting to describe and respond to shows, from the assumption that theatre is an art. Not sure if a grade 3 kid could write that review, but if you know one, introduce me.

robyn holland said...

there isnt one thing on there that tells me i have to be 'Critical' my thoughts are how i have seen it and again bravo to the talented cast u were wonderful.

Alison Croggon said...

Yep, the performances were great. And duly noted in both the blog post and commente here. As I said, I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I never argue with anyone else's pleasure.