The birch is back. Simon Higlett’s set for Michael Attenborough’s Almeida production suggests a standard-issue evening of what might be termed “samovar theater” — tastefully propped, nicely proportioned, turn-of-the-20th-century Russian drama adorned with tall trees, dappled light, long white dresses and fading gentility. But none of that quite prepares you for the pungency of the actual play, Maxim Gorky’s rarely seen “Enemies.”
Although the 1906 play was performed in its own time, it was banned by the Czar’s censor, and it’s not hard to see why. A country that had just lived through the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905 was hardly likely to approve of a play by a revolutionary in which properly individualized members of the proletariat are represented with as much sympathy as the controlling bourgeoisie.
Not for Gorky, or his translator David Hare, is this a play about crudely opposed representatives of warring classes. A vast cast — 20 speaking roles plus supernumeraries — play characters spread across the spectrum of beliefs.
“Socialism! Here! And in such a backwater!” Polina (Amanda Root), wife of factory owner Zakhar Bardin (Sean Chapman), finds the idea more than faintly absurd. Her husband, however, is slowly being torn apart by it. He’s a man doomed to see both sides of an issue, as he tries to handle his militant workers and keep the factory in profit.
Not as doomed, however, as his short-fused managing director Mikhail Skrobotov (Sean Gilder) who angrily takes his gun and goes to closes the factory to teach the “dissolute” workers “a little hardship” and winds up shot dead.
The rest of the play unravels the perspectives of the family and the workers in the aftermath of the murder — an accidental death that takes on serious significance, with perpetrators and onlookers all revealed to have seriously mixed motives.
Mercifully, Gorky is too good a dramatist to stoop to a series of positions on a theme. And there’s a fascinating tension to this little-known, Chekhov-with-more-politics play (last presented in London in 1971) that derives absolutely from the 20-20 hindsight of the audience.
Unlike Gorky, we know exactly what was around the corner. The Russian revolution of 1917 changed everything, and our knowledge of that lends the play dramatic irony and a variously prophetic, hopeful and elegiac edge.
The most complex position is held by the most surprising character. As the actress Tatyana, languidly beautiful wife to factory owner Zakhar’s feckless brother Yakov (Jack Davenport), Amanda Drew utterly lives up to the admiring description of her character as displaying “almost ravishing subtlety.” Unlike almost every other person in the play, she is not a prisoner of class. The dangerous social mobility of being an actress means she belongs to neither the bourgeoisie nor the working class.
As events proceed, she not only patiently watches and comments, she becomes actively involved on behalf of one of the workers. Her attempted seduction of the mean-spirited, ambitious assistant prosecutor Skrobotov (a nicely icy Stephen Noonan) is the standout scene. Drew runs the scene to perfection, controlling extended silences and the whole flow with lethal, low-voiced charm. However, too many other character trajectories and scenes lack that degree of structure.
A newly bearded Davenport cuts a watchable dash flopping about as disaffected Yakov. Yet when Serafina (Sandra Voe) says of him, “You don’t seem to have got the hang of being a gentleman,” the remark cuts both ways. Yes, he’s engagingly louche and irresponsible, but he’s about as authentically 1906 as an iPod.
Although Attenborough marshals his enormous cast with skill, it’s often unclear where characters stand within the play as a whole. Energy keeps being dissipated because scenes are not properly shaped. Attenborough and his actors have clearly examined the text in great detail, but in reassembling the play, every discovered moment has been granted equal weight, with the result that the pace is too even.
This problem is at its most acute in the final act, which should rise to a climax. Instead, a scene merely stops and the lights come up, at which point you realize that was the end of the play.
For all that, with Hare’s new version of the text wittily replete with blustering general, puffed-up officials and an idealistic young woman, the ambitious production has an overarching strength. A precise and priggish Root, as Polina, loftily declares of socialism, “It’s fine in principle. It’s fine abroad.”
Losing patience, Tatyana sums up their situation in what could be a very risky speech: “We’re like some terrible amateur dramatic society, putting on a play. And we’ve all been given the wrong parts. And the audience hates the play because they can see right through it.”
Flawed though it is, this production’s intriguing, quietly affecting group portrait is, happily, a long way from Tatyana’s nightmare scenario.