Summerfolk at the National - Olivier
A play about Russia's leisured classes, gathering around a summer dacha, grumbling and moaning about their lot? Why, we must be in Chekhov territory. Well not quite, for where Chekhov portrayed an aristocracy in decline, what Maxim Gorky presents us with is the emergence of the Russian middle-classes, the doctors, the engineers who were sons and daughters of peasants and who flourished in the late 19th century and early 20th. The title of the play refers to the fact that they spend just a few weeks at their summer retreats before going back to work. They are as transient in the neighbourhood as they are in history - how many of them would return to their dachas in 1918?
As such, this play could have been a museum piece, about a lost class, frozen in time. But what is astonishing about Trevor Nunn's production is how easily we can spot traces of these characters today. These are the second home/country cottages people whom we see in villages at weekends, grumbling about the locals.
And, as one might expect from Gorky, there is a strong political element to the piece. Sometimes, the politicking is a bit too crude and the working-class watchmen, bitterly resenting the 'summerfolk' could be seen as a bit too clichéd, but this is a small quibble. Nick Dear's lively new version brilliantly captures the pointlessness of this existence.
The action revolves around Sergei Bassov, his unhappily married wife, Varya, and their acquaintances. Into their world comes Shalimov, a famous writer whose audience has drifted away from him, and who provided inspiration to Varya when she was at school. To her disappointment, he proves as vacuous as the rest of the gathering.
This a superb display of ensemble acting. Jennifer Ehle is a sympathetic Varya and Raymond Coulthard is excellent as her brother, Vlass, a character reduced to playing the fool to mask his deep unhappiness. Henry Goodman is a suave and shallow Shalimov, an embodiment of how little intellectuals could do to change the status quo.
But the standout performances come from Roger Allam as a doltish Sergei, unable to comprehend his wife's unhappiness; Patricia Hodge, as the socially aware and campaigning doctor, Maria, whose brisk manner and abrasive speech, is the main catalyst for change; and Simon Russell Beale as the overworked Dr Dudakov, hiding from the commitments of family life and knowing in his heart that he, and all of these people, should be doing more to change society.
In reality it is unfair to single out any characters as none puts a foot wrong - Summerfolk is a superb piece of work and yet another triumph for the NT Ensemble.