Political playwright Maxim Gorky’s Philistines received a fresh update in a new version by Andrew Upton that opened on Tuesday (30 May 2007, previews from 23 May) at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, where it continues in repertory.

Set in Russia in the early 20th century, the play takes a peek into the Bessemnenov family home, which is inhabited by a miserly father (Phil Davis), his miserable children (Ruth Wilson and Rory Kinnear), and an array of renting tenants who drink and dance as the revolution on the streets outside threatens to spill through the front door.

Unsurprisingly, critics were quick to compare Gorky - an “unparalleled observer of the time” – to his contemporary Anton Chekhov, whose plays are synonymous with Russian naturalism of the period. But the general consensus was that Philistines proves a “superb evening” if “over-leisurely”.

Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer also used the opportunity to take a stab at NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner over his recent comments that London critics were dead white males (See News, 14 May 2007). “It's good to see a dead white male such as Gorky revived with such panache at Nicholas Hytner's PC NT,” observed Spencer.

Philistines is Gorky’s first play and was written in 1902 before being banned. This new production is directed by NT associate director Howard Davies and designed by Bunny Christie with lighting by Neil Austin and music by Dominic Muldowney. The cast also features Conleth Hill, Justine Mitchell, Duncan Bell, Mark Bonnar, Stephanie Jacob and Susannah Fielding.

  • Malcolm Rock for Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “Director Howard Davies turns Gorky’s 1902 play about weary world wanderers into a majestic life-affirming event thanks to Andrew Upton’s restless new translation that overlaps, doubles back then hangs; distracted, dawdling, indecisive, mirthful. Upton matches the play’s lavish philosophising with colloquial turns of phrase and outrageously funny throw-away lines that give Gorky’s perceptive account of an imploding early 20th-century bourgeois Russian family new life. Ruth Wilson gives a shattering performance as the almost spectral Tanya. Disintegrating as they devour misery, both the young and old in Philistines become ‘cunning villains and foolish heroes’ who take pleasure in pain while finding pleasure painful. What a guilty pleasure to have so enjoyed this pain.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (five stars) – “Gorky, in Andrew Upton's sparklingly colloquial new translation, takes us deep inside the fractious Bessemnenov family. The danger is one makes the play sound grimmer than it is. In Howard Davies' beautifully naturalistic production, which is as good as anything in London, there is rich comedy in the portrait of this exploding family. Phil Davis' Vassily is the grotesque epitome of philistine small-mindedness. Rory Kinnear also brings out the self-indulgence within Pyotr's lassitude and despair. And Conleth Hill is acerbically funny as the house-philosopher. If there is tragedy, it lies within Ruth Wilson's Tanya who seems doomed to disappointment from the start. But the joy of a superb evening lies in the overdue rediscovery of a play that links the family to politics and that confirms Gorky was an unparalleled observer of his times."

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Its plot sprawls to the point of flabbiness and Andrew Upton in his sometimes crudely over-modernised version has not pruned enough of the characters' vigorously thrusting loquaciousness. Yet even though this embittered, romantic comedy with its faint but distinct undertones of political discontent was premiered just a few years after Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, Howard Davies' production reveals how far Gorky paints a different class of picture. Davies' over-leisurely production does not draw the class lines clearly. It does, though, offer a unique and rousing theatrical impression of Russian youth, on the verge of revolution, struggling to escape the bonds of repressive paternal power."

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “Philistines is Chekhovian in its quirky detail, but Gorkyesque in its sharp-eyed portrait of a small-town family that’s passive, self-pitying and/or hostile in the face of the changes that, this being 1901, are stirring outside. No wonder the authorities banned it. But no wonder Chekhov admired what was, in fact, Gorky’s first play. ‘Sure to be gripping from the first act,’ he declared, and Howard Davies’ splendidly observant, atmospheric revival proves him right. Right, even though Philistines sprawls and the dialogue criss-crosses Bunny Christie’s set in ultra-naturalistic fashion. Right, even though Gorky’s socialist exasperation sometimes seems repetitive.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “As Chekhov perceptively observed: ‘Gorky is the first in Russia and the world at large to have expressed contempt and loathing for the petty bourgeoisie, and he has done it at the precise moment when Russia is ready for protest.’ Howard Davies' excellently acted ensemble production is constantly responsive to the piece's cruel and mordant humour. What makes Gorky a lesser dramatist than Chekhov is that he sits in judgment on his characters, dividing them into the good and the bad, while Chekhov always allows the audience to draw its own conclusions. Andrew Upton's new version is vivid, if excessively littered with such modern turns of phrase as ‘Have a good one’ and ‘What's with the dark?"’, while Davies' direction captures the piece's shifting moods with aplomb. Phil Davis turns in a brilliant comic turn as the vile father, his grating voice and whining self-pity owing an equal debt to old-man Steptoe and Alf Garnett.”

    - by Malcolm Rock