Some slouch fatigued on windowsills watching others take pleasure in birdsong and mushroom-picking, but every character in Maxim Gorky’s Philistines wants desperately to live.
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 who haunts the shadows of Bunny Christie’s moody, brown-tiled, right-angled set. With her diffident brother Pyotr (Rory Kinnear) – who has been suspended from university for political activism – Tanya lingers as love evades her and the non-world she inhabits decays with help from her disparaging, iron-fisted father Vassily Bessemenov (Phil Davis).
Davis makes a duly tyrannical patriarch whose authority over his family and the resentful tenants populating his sub-divided house is floundering at the dawn of the revolution. Threatened by the learning he senses but eludes him, he resorts to bigotry that castrates his son and alienates his wife while unwittingly grooming his suicidal daughter into the heir of his undoing.
For this doomed family even the furniture is source of silent ridicule: from the cupboard’s refusal to “do something” to the pewter samovar whose mere weight even at distance becomes a mountain upon shoulders.
Technicolour tenants Perchikin (Duncan Bell) and Elena (Justine Mitchell) assert themselves in the Bessemenov household bringing much-needed levity and lust with their stories of chasing bullfinches and hating people’s problems.
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.