Rory Kinnear’s Pyotr simply cannot believe his luck. The seemingly unattainable woman he secretly longed for has just proposed to him. Utterly exultant, he leaps into the air at the exact moment when his reproving mother sticks her head round the door. Caught in mid-air, his body spasms into submission. That sublimely executed comic collision between joy and pain encapsulates Howard Davies’ captivating production of “Philistines.”
Written in 1902, Maxim Gorky’s first play is rarely staged and not only because of the cost of a cast of 18. Even its most ardent admirer would admit this portrait of an extended family in the run-up to the Russian revolution can be worryingly diffuse. In Andrew Upton’s new version, however, although the play still rambles, it’s most definitely going somewhere.
This family doesn’t so much survive as thrive on bickering. Disporting themselves lethargically about Bunny Christie’s huge open living room — more like a waiting room — they gaze out the rain drenched windows and fret about their past, present and future. It’s a mark of the richness of Gorky’s tapestry that it’s impossible to say which of them is the lead character.
Head of the household is Phil Davis’ gloriously cantankerous Vassilly. A self-made man eaten up with resentment, he fills the apartment with lodgers and assorted hangers-on, but all he gets from them is ingratitude. Worse, his family members are singularly lacking in gumption.
Even Akulina, his pragmatic wife (weary but bustling Stephanie Jacob) gets it in the neck. Nor does he miss a single opportunity to disparage and yell at the servants, including the maid Polya (Susannah Fielding). Offered escape via love, she has the temerity to agree to marry Vassilly’s foster-son Nil (resolute Mark Bonnar), whose belief in a Soviet future is absolute.
Top of Vassilly’s list of failures is his son Pyotr, who mopes about in increasing exasperation. Although he’s a typically petulant, overgrown adolescent terrified of becoming like his father, in Kinnear’s expert hands, every step of Pyotr’s personal ideological struggle is blisteringly clear.
Pyotr’s surrounded on all sides by vocal opinions, not least from Conleth Hill’s superbly engaging, shambling wreck of a chorister-cum-philosopher, Teterev, just one of the characters who loves unwisely. Indeed, for the most part, the play’s momentum comes from emotions conjured by (mis)alliances.
Chief among the casualties is Pyotr’s sister Tanya (Ruth Wilson). Although Wilson’s lack of projection renders too much of her dialogue into inaudible suffering, she brings enough touching presence to the role to compare it to Sonya in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” albeit with a wounding degree of self-deprecation.
Like Chekhov’s characters, but more explicitly so, Gorky’s characters are carefully placed along a political spectrum. Upton’s version underlines the crucial nature of the politics by taking everything beyond talk into action.
Moving the play forward to 1910, he shows the hopes and ideals of the younger characters viciously betrayed by the older generation. Pushed to the breaking point, Pyotr’s lover, the sexually self-assured upstairs lodger Elena (wittily headstrong Justine Mitchell), finally hurls the truth at Vassilly, ripping his world apart.
Seizing Upton’s snappy, colloquial text — a feast of one-liners, tart interruptions and overlapping dialogue — Davies proves himself as much a conductor as a director. Picking up Gorky’s cue that these fretting, exasperated creatures are, to begin with, all solipsists, Davies blends these soloists into an increasingly entertaining orchestral whole.
“Life,” announces Teterev, morosely. “People shout, fight, eat and go to bed. When they wake up? They start shouting again.” That’s almost the perfect synopsis of the play. But Davies and company prove that far from merely being a house of mirthlessness, this upstairs-downstairs household fills the term “tragi-comedy” with theatrically pungent life.