Jack Klaff, Jacob Banser, Doug Rao and Mark Jax (by Robert Workman)
Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths is a rare sighting. Paired at the Arcola with its contemporary, The Cherry Orchard, it deals with the same sick Russian social system but from the bottom up. It also features a cast of epic proportions: eighteen characters, each fleshed out and playing a necessary part in the drama, presumably the reason theatres always go for Chekhov instead. Not only is it a strain on theatre resources, but a particularly complex directorial challenge. Helena Kaut-Howson, with her impressive experience in European theatre, is a canny choice for a tough job. Despite some awkward shifts in tone and pace as the cast work to gel an involved web of overlapping characters, this is production that demands to be seen.
The Lower Depths is set in a doss-house. The teeming cast of alcoholics, petty tyrants, burned out aristocrats thieves, losers, dreamers, desperate men, dying women and outcasts of every kind swarm all over Iona McLeish’s scaffolding bunks and cramped stairs, levered on to the Arcola’s small stage. The combination of intimacy and epic sweep makes this an unusual and special evening. Multiple plot strands interweave as the doss house’s inhabitants are jolted out of their assumed roles by the arrival of a mysterious old man, Luka, who some take for a pilgrim – Jim Bywater, looking and sounding like Alan Bennett without the neuroses. He brings with him something in very short supply: compassion. By showing sympathy for the pitiful Anna, dying ignored in the middle of the crowded dormitory, he disrupts a hierarchy of relationships that is equal parts exploitation and friendship.
From the Ruth Everett’s vengeful landlady, Vassilissa, boiling for revenge on faithless lover and thief Vassily, to James Simmons’ seedy Baron pimping Katie Hart’s Natasha, power is the currency. Cruelty is shocking and explicit, with the dead meriting no respect. Violence is inevitable, as the doss house drinking school – Mark Jax as Bubnov, Jack Klaff as Satin, Simon Scardifield as The Actor – are forced to leave their perpetual pub crawl. Politics, never directly mentioned, is everywhere and Russian audiences would have known exactly what Gorky’s focus on dregs of society implied. The Lower Depths seems a direct precursor to The Plough and the Stars, and clearly influenced the giants of 20th century drama. Pinter’s strange tramps and O’Neill’s impossible drinkers lurk in the doss house shadows. Gorky’s masterpiece is imperfect but entirely fascinating, and the Arcola deserves praise for committing to such rewarding writing.