In 1902, when Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths premiered at the Moscow Arts Theatre, Russia was a sprawling and unwieldy empire in flux. The revolution of 1905, led in part by the ‘lower orders’ of Gorky’s play, was brewing as it became increasingly obvious that the old way of life was incompatible with the country’s new social composition. The play, far from offering a solution to the great questions of the era, chronicles and records it in unflinching detail; and offers a thrilling and immersive three hours of theatre.
The work follows a group of destitute individuals living in a boarding house on the banks of the Volga. Rather than being an indistinguishable mass of down-and-outs, their characters are sharply drawn. Each is memorable in their own way, but Anna (Adrianna Pawlowska), slowly dying, martyred to the cruelty of her husband and the Russia she inhabits, is particularly memorable. As is Jim Bywater as Luka, a wandering sage who dispenses comforting platitudes as a tonic against the injustices of their situation. Each cast member manages to maintain a delicately balanced duality: between a fleshed-out, engaging character, and as a stand-in for more universal ideas and concerns.
Another strength of Helena Kaut-Howson’s direction is that it doesn’t flounder when the light, meandering plot isn’t providing much narrative thrust. Instead she enables the philosophical register of the work to shine through, not shying away from the character’s rhetoric on some familiar themes from Russian literature at the turn of the century.
The role of religion in personal and public life, the desire to escape conflicting with the need to belong, the uselessness of the bureaucratic classes, and the decay of the nobility are all there and given a certain lift by the buoyant translation. The decision to give certain characters regional accents – Luka has a Yorkshire twang, Natasha (Katie Hart) and Vassilissa (Ruth Everett) a Scottish lilt – adds a specificity that brings something unique to the reading.
The physicality of the staging is also arresting. The sense of unbridled, violent passion and unrelenting heartache, and anguish are transmitted to the audience through the bold direction in the stripped back, almost industrial set. The addition of several anachronistic touches adds an air of unease; the sight of Anna, languishing in a makeshift bed, wearing a brightly coloured unicorn t-shirt, is unsettling in a way I can’t quite describe.
The Cherry Orchard will take over from The Lower Depths at the Arcola in mid-February, and the pairing is a clever one. If the Russia of the early twentieth century was cruel to the lower orders, it was equally as severe to the upper classes; and the counterpoint between the worlds of both plays will be fascinating to observe. As much of the cast is in both productions, I can’t wait to see what this ensemble bring next – it’s bound to be revolutionary.
The Lower Depths is playing at the Arcola Theatre until 11th February. See here for more information and tickets.