Like a three person walking glasnost, director Howard Davies, adaptor Andrew Upton and designer Bunny Christie are the National Theatre’s Russian dream team, plucking obscure gems by the Eastern giant’s greatest writers and turning them into emotionally hefty, visually arresting twenty-first-century smashes.
Despite a literally incendiary last ten minutes, this new version of Maxim Gorky’s 1905 play doesn’t feel in quite the same league as the Davies/Upton/Christie triumvirate’s recent sublime excavations of Gorky’s ‘Philistines’ and Bulgakov’s ‘The White Guard’.
There are several reasons for this – and the play itself is definitely one of them. It’s set in the living room-cum-lab of Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfied, very funny, very sweet), an absent minded scientist who has all but sequestered himself away from the world in the name of his research.
There is a town outside, but we don’t see it: the action never leaves the room as Protasov’s various friends and family members drift in to moan and fret and gossip and scheme. Some of them are idiots (Gerald Kyd’s self-regarding artist Vageen), some of them are tragic (Paul Higgins’s lovelorn Boris) and some of them are not to blame for their behaviour (Emma Lownes’s frail Liza) but all of them are so absorbed with their own interests that they fail to see the storm brewing outside their walls.
A great cast and some good jokes in Upson’s text can’t quite coax the first half's slightly sub-Chekhovian series of elegant expositionary chats into life. An edgier production than Davies's stately one might have pepped it up – but if feels like a lot of the humour in the text isn't fully tapped here.
Still, in the second half the painstaking groundwork of the first comes to fruition, as the danger of Protasov’s bumbling disengagement from events in the town suddenly becomes all too apparent. Book, direction and design come together for a jaw-dropping final sequence that pays off all that came before it in a searing warning about the dangers of dwelling in an ivory tower. Andrzej Lukowski