'They try to fight, they try to love, they try to escape through alcohol or romantic novels, but ultimately they stay exactly the same, just like the grotty set that reflects their miserable lives.'
In a nameless rental lodge for the poor in a nameless town, a nameless bunch of people rots away, barely living and bored as hell. The Lower Depths is long and grim, even though Nine Years Theatre – and artistic director Nelson Chia – has shortened the script for this Mandarin adaptation. Nonetheless, this staging of Maxim Gorky’s classic Russian play is oddly enjoyable.
There isn’t much of a plot to speak of, as the work is more a study of characters and philosophies. The cast of seven takes on multiple roles: they’re known simply as ‘the thief’ (Neo Hai Bin), ‘the actor’ (Johnny Ng), ‘the musician’ (Jean Toh) or ‘the prostitute’ (Mia Chee). But we don’t get to see them living up to their professions – they bum around the lodge, insulting one another and spewing grand-sounding ideas about how ‘dignity is only for the rich’.
Over the course of two hours, we watch these hopeless, faithless creatures from the comfort of our seats, as though they were animals from a badly kept zoo. They try to fight, they try to love, they try to escape through alcohol or romantic novels, but ultimately they stay exactly the same, just like the grotty set that reflects their miserable lives.
Things become slightly more interesting with the appearance of an Old Man (Tay Kong Hui), whose kindness and idealistic views on life and death inspire in the other characters both comfort and rage. They constantly accuse him of being ‘a liar’, and yet they find solace in his assertion that ‘whatever you believe is true’. Is he the Godot they’ve been waiting for? We don’t know. And for better or for worse, their existence goes on after he vanishes as suddenly as he arrives.
Despite the dire circumstances, the play is still darkly humorous. The cast deftly switches between various parts, and although most of the characters lack individual depth, together they form the cogs of a destitute – but well-oiled – machine that is The Lower Depths. While the group dynamic is great to watch in the comedic scenes, we can really catch glimpses of the characters’ state of despair when there are only two or three of them onstage. We’d have liked to see more of these moments, however, and there’s a wealth of emotions into which the actors could definitely have delved with more intensity.
Gorky’s slice-of-life play has always been considered a difficult one, since there is no real moral compass and no way out. The final scene sums this up: one character commits suicide after realising that his dreams are lies, and all that his fellow dwellers could muster – sadly, but also matter-of-factly – was that he ruined their drinking party.
There is no happy ending, and we’re not even sure which side of truth or fantasy we’re treading on most of the time. But while it can be difficult to relate to the desperation of these characters, The Lower Depths offers a window into what life could be like for those at the bottom rungs of society. It’s not pretty, but it does make us take a long, hard look at ourselves, and realise how tough it can be for others to get through another day.