Monday, April 29, 2013

'Summerfolk' at the Pleasance Theatre, 26th April 2013

This is the only screengrab I could find, and to be honest it doesn't look much like what I saw.  But I'll trust the Pleasance Theatre's website on this.
People say there’s two types of Russian plays.  The first is a bunch of exploited proletariat living cheek by jowl in a doss-house, the second is a bunch of miserable snobs in a country estate picking over their emotional baggage.  Maxim Gorky’s Summerfolk is very much the latter, fitting right into the template of productions of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Seagull.  As far as I can see, the recipe calls for a generally depressed middle-aged academic type living unhappily on a country estate, surrounded by by friends that occupy various parts of the political spectrum, a beautiful and unhappy wife, a younger woman (probably also depressed) and maybe some servants that add a wry bit of class commentary.  Naturally in the third act someone will go berserk and start waving a gun around.

Now I appreciate the intelligence and precision construction of these plays but while I’ve found much to enjoy in the two productions I’ve seen I know full well that quite a bit of it went over my head (it didn’t exactly help that I inadvertently attended a Russian language production of Uncle Vanya).  So I wasn’t exactly brimming over with excitement at the prospect of seeing Summerfolk.  Frankly, the only reason I was attending at all is because every single LAMDA production I’ve seen so far has been great and I figured if anyone can make this stuff more palatable it’s them.

Ten minutes into the play it felt as though my worst suspicions had been confirmed.  We’re rapidly introduced to a plethora of characters, all of whom have complex interpersonal relationships with each other.  It’s a byzantine web of hidden love, class tensions, generation gaps and simmering resentment, all of which bubble under every scrap of dialogue and finally boil over in the final scenes.  It's initially overwhelming and this, coupled with some rather austere stage design, made my heart sink.  Was this going to be a worthy, yet deeply dull night?

But soon (and after I’d pinned down who was who) I started to notice something: this was really funny.  Almost suspiciously funny. Funnier than I thought a Russian play from 1904 could possibly be.  Perhaps this was down to a translation that concentrated on making the dialogue as witty as possible, but I think largely it was down to yet another electric set of performances from the LAMDA students.  

This is a pretty big and universally talented cast, but there were three performances that stood out.  The first was James Corrigan as Sergei, the host of the party.  His character is a loudmouthed, egotistical drunk - but Corrigan plays him with a charismatic joie de vivre and while he may annoy the hell out his wife Varvara, she’s haughty and reserved enough to make him seem that much more fun in comparison.  Corrigan plays a great drunk, with a pinch of Oliver Reed to the performance.  It’s almost impossible not to laugh along with him when he pricks the atmosphere self-importance with a crude jokes.  But layered below this extroversion are the moral failings that propel the drama - despite his obvious love for malicious gossip he seems desperate to avoid conflict, weaselling out of any political disagreements, even when his friends are at each other’s throats.  

Also hilarious is Jamie Wilkes as Semion, a retired businessman from Siberia.  He’s both the oldest and richest character in the play.  Of the cast he’s the least idealistic and the most pragmatic - and probably also the funniest too, though this is down to the actor more than the character.  When everyone is losing their heads he’s the only person who can cut through all of the interpersonal bullshit and act like a human being.  This reliability is contrasted Wilkes being the most unpredictable actor on stage, my favourite moment in the play is where a bandana tied around his head comes loose and falls over his eyes; causing a funny improvisational moment where Wilkes doesn’t know where he’s going.  Both Wilkes and Corrigan were the best things in LAMDA's production of Joseph K, so I'm going to be keeping a close eye on what they appear in next. 

As for the more serious characters go, Sarah Madigan did an outstanding job as the social reformer Maria Lvovna.  The 1904 setting means that the spectre of the coming revolution haunts these bourgeois loafers.  Lvovna a sort of harbinger of this, although in a softer form than these characters will presumably encounter in 1917.  Characters repeatedly claim to have clawed their way up from the bottom of the social heap to the luxurious existence they currently enjoy, and Lvovna’s social conscience is an awkward reminder of their obligations to society that they prefer to ignore.

Late in the play Vlass (played well by Amir-El Masry), a much younger man, declares his love for her.  Tellingly, instead of his attention making her feel more vital it merely  underlines her age.  She’s terrified of allowing herself to become vulnerable and we can visibly see a tangled web of emotions playing across Madigan's face.  Considering that the only concession to old-age makeup for Madigan is a streak of grey in her hair, she's able to convey a plain middle-aged desperation  - a trick that somehow works even though she's obviously young and beautiful.  I suppose in most productions the actor cast to play her would be about the same age as the character, but there’s something in Madigan's performance and physicality that adds to the role.  I think if Lvovna was cast as an actor the same age as the character we might find her self-doubt understandable, but as played by Madigan, Lvovna's vulnerability seems psychosomatic, giving it an additional layer of trgedy.

The longer the play went on the more I enjoyed it - a trend that surprisingly continued right up the end.  I don’t know much about the wider works of Maxim Gorky, and I have no idea whether Summerfolk is usually staged as a overtly farcical comedy (to some extent it must be), but this production successfully highlights the hypocrisy and selfishness of the bourgeoisie.  It heaps mockery on the the middle-class ‘fuck you got mine’ philosophy, exposing every facet of these people as facile and pointless.  

Perhaps the most telling sequence comes in the contrast between the poetry of Kaleria, Sergei’s sister, and Vlass’ impromptu response.  Kaleria poems are meaningless platitudes about the beauty of mountains and the misery of leaves that everyone politely applauds and compliments.  Late in the play when temperatures are running high she recites another poem, more awful than the last.  Vlass stands up, and reels off an excoriating impromptu lyrical beatdown of everyone present.  In a play where everyone tends to speak in half-truths it’s a rare moment of absolute honesty that stuns everyone into uneasy silence.  It highlights the savagery and selfishness of those around him. In moments like this the spectre of Lenin seems to be standing just off-stage, ready and waiting.  

So another great night from LAMDA, and though I can’t state it enough, even more amazing for being completely free to attend.  If anyone is reading this and wants to attend top-notch theatre in London but is put off by the steep ticket prices in the West End go to a few LAMDA productions.  By now I can pretty much guarantee it’ll be great.

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