Review: The Lower Depths (Arcola Theatre)

The slogging misery of Maxim Gorky’s play may turn you to booze

If you’re attempting 'Dry January', The Lower Depths may just help: this Maxim Gorky play offers an ensemble portrait of the lives of the destitute and dispossessed, all of whom turn – hey, it’s Russian – to copious amounts of vodka. There are plenty of soaked plays in the canon, but this offers an especially bleak view of drinking to cope. "Living is fucking impossible and that’s the truth of it," snarls one man. The only solution? Another swig, or twenty.

Then again, the slogging misery of the thing might also make a shot or two seem rather appealing. At over three hours long, this is a punishingly long, frequently tough-going proposition. Translated by Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair, there is much mordant wit amid the sprawling, rambling discussions and fights of the large cast of alcoholics, card sharks and prostitutes – but it’s just that there’s an awful lot more existential angst and gloomy musings on the injustice of life.

In this latter respect, the production ought to be timely. Set in a doss house peopled with lost souls – each with their own often tragic backstory – The Lower Depths explores the precariousness of life. Depressingly, Russia in 1902 can quite easily translate to a modern city. The epidemic of homelessness in this country ought to be a greater source of shame and outrage, and a production which invites us to consider this ignored underclass could be biting. Should be galvanising.

Sadly, the overall effect of Helena Kaut-Howson’s production is more one of deathly ennui. While there are many excellent performances – Ruth Everett has a wild-eyed vigour as a nasty landlord, Simon Scardifield is sympathetic as an alcoholic actor dreaming of drying out, and Jack Klaff is particularly funny as Satin, a deliciously dissolute old rocker type – the play is simply too long-winded to ultimately feel like anything other than a slog.

It’s a pity, for there are interesting ideas thrown about. The play asks us to seriously consider how we value people in our society, to consider the plight of those often framed as "unworthy" of sympathy or support. Not that it’s sentimental or sugar-coated: these down-and-outs are often lazy, lying, drunken crooks. But The Lower Depths lets us see why a life of street-drinking and petty crime might feel like someone’s only option.

The arrival of a twinkly old man (Jim Bywater) also serves as a reminder of how far a little human kindness may go – although the bar is set low amongst this lot, where tending to a dying woman rather than shouting at her for coughing seems positively Christ-like. He understands the need for faith, for hope, for love, and encourages the vagrants not to crush each other’s fragile dreams – setting up some interesting debate over the necessity of truth versus the kindness of a lie. And yet facing up to the reality of your situation may, as Gorky finally seems to suggest, result only in utter despair. At which, they once again pass the bottle.

The Lower Depths is at the Arcola till 11 February.