One of the great achievements in the early history of the Royal Shakespeare Company was its introduction of the plays of Maxim Gorky, starting with Enemies at the Aldwych in 1971. Michael Attenborough’s revival at the Almeida, in a new version by David Hare, reveals a play of panoramic vision and remarkable detail.
Never has the Almeida seen such a squash at its curtain calls, as two dozen actors shuffle to their places in the line-up. They have all been sharply characterised as landed gentry, factory owners, languorous intellectuals, militant workers, soldiers and servants. As the critic Ronald Bryden said at the time of the RSC production, the 1906 play is “the missing link between Chekhov and the Russian Revolution…Gorky’s The Lower Depths may be the greater play, but Enemies was surely his most necessary one”.
Zakhar Bardin (Sean Chapman) is the troubled factory owner in an unnamed part of Russia where the impact of a strike sets off a series of reverberations among every level of the local society. The murder of the managing director is a catalyst to further upheavals, with raw emotional disputes between the two main families, a round-up of 17 suspects, violent reprisals and a terrifying kangaroo court where Bardin’s own niece, Nadya (Jodie Whittaker), speaks out savagely against her own class.
Whereas in Chekhov you sense turmoil on the horizon like a distant thundercloud, in Gorky it is actually happening under our noses. Simon Higlett’s design of slender birch trees on the edge of a spacious lawn implies the scenic idyll soon to be disrupted, as the recriminations crowd in with the furniture and the military. Attenborough seems to be underlining this transition by casting the same actor, Sean Gilder, as both the murdered manager and the head of the criminal investigation in the third act, Captain Boboyedov.
There's a wonderful scene when the captain interviews Bardin’s sister-in-law, the actress Tatyana, played with simpering self-sufficiency by the feline Amanda Drew. He comments that as he has spent so much time enjoying her performances, it's high time she appreciated one of his. This idea of characters living up to their own estimation (or, more often, falling short) is a recurring theme of the play and one that makes Gorky so distinctive and different from Chekhov.
This flavour is enforced by the grittiness and guile of Hare’s text, and the performances of Jack Davenport as the wastrel brother, Graham Turner as a mischievously perceptive clerk, Amanda Root as Bardin’s pulverised, pretentious wife and Stephen Noonan as a chillingly determined lawyer. The most prominent worker, Levshin, is given a massive dignity by Edward Peel. Only when you leave the theatre do you realise that we don’t actually know what the factory produces.
- Michael Coveney