Review – Philistines by Maxim Gorky, National Theatre

Friday 1 June 2007

When it was announced that the National Theatre was putting on Maxim Gorky’s pre-revolutionary Russian play the Whingers rushed down to the telephone box, determined to be first on the phone for tickets.

Philistines resonates through their lives and not for the reason that has immediately sprung into your mind.

No. For Phil it is because – and not many people know this – Phil is actually short for Philistine (his full name is Philistine Bartholomew Brunhilda Bouvier).

And for Andrew because he knows in his heart that he is a legitimate member of the Russian aristocracy – possibly even its rightful crown head – being a direct descendant of the Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and the only Romanov to have escaped the murder of her family by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Two reasons quite good enough to pop down to the National with would-be whinger Neil in tow to see this new version by Andrew Upton and directed by Howard Davies.

But a glance through the programme did not bode well. According to Upton:

[Philistines] is all raw material and on the initial encounter seems like a backpack of life-so-far just unzipped and tipped unceremoniously onto the stage…. [Gorky’s first play does not have] the order of a well-made playwright – structure and form, cogs and gears.

The first duty of someone called on to adapt the play would be – one might hope – to retrospectively address these shortcomings and turn it into a decent play. However Upton clearly has more reverence than the Whingers (or possibly about the same degree of laziness) and by the interval the bleakness and misery of this dysfunctional-family-stuck-inside-on-a-rainy-day-saga were seeping into the stalls.

Son Pyotr (Rory Kinnear) and daughter Tanya (Ruth Wilson) are very miserable about stuff and don’t care who knows it.

Many of the rooms are let out to various lodgers (not all of whom are miserable) by the parsimonious and tyrannical father Vassilly (Phil Davis). There are so many characters that the first act features many, many, many words to establish who everyone is, their relationship to each other, what they represent in the shifting landscape of pre-revolutionary Russia (how did he know there was going to be a revolution? Marvellous prescience to set one’s play in pre-revolutionary Russia, Andrew marvelled) and how miserable most of them are (Andrew began to wonder if perhaps Gorky was parodying his contemporary Chekhov).

Fine acting and all that, but nothing happened. When Pyotr challenges the cupboard to do something Phil worried for a moment that he had blurted his thoughts out loud.

By the interval the Whingers and entourage were so overwhelmed by the all pervading ennui that they couldn’t even work up the enthusiasm to go to the bar.

Before the play had begun, Andrew (who is very polite) had already apologised to Neil for the play being 2hrs 50 minutes but the reality of this expanse of time only began to sink in when faced with the prospect of returning to the auditorium. Not a few members of the audience had failed to stick out even as far as the interval.

What strange god of the theatre must have been moving in a mysterious way that evening to impel the disconsolate group to return for the second act? Who can tell? But god bless him or her.

The second act was absolutely marvellous. Things started to happen and continued to happen right until the end. The actors soared, the dialogue sparkled and all three left the auditorium wearing expressions of bemused delight of people who have just witnessed a wholly unexpected and truly delightful miracle. Imagine going to the dentist and discovering that your new hygienist is Carol Channing (this is actually one of Phil’s recurring dreams).

The cast is universally strong (and one hasn’t been able to say that at the National for a while). For perhaps the first time in his career the talented Rory Kinnear does not get to dominate his every scene.

Phil Davis plays Vassilly as a cross between Wilfred Brambell and Alan Sugar and gets some of the best lines. When asked conversationally “Was it hot in church?” he acidly responds “We didn’t go to take the temperature.”

Great performances come too from the excellent Conleth Hill and Justine Mitchell as two of the lodgers.

It was all quite extraordinary stuff and the Whingers recommend that instead of leaving at the interval as many did, you consider arriving at the interval.

The Whingers can not finish without saying a word or two about the best fenestration (notre mot du mois) currently to be seen on the West End Stage.

As the audience enters, the proscenium is blocked by the wall of a house complete with three storeys of windows (and actors behind them peering through). Once revealed, the back of the set proved to have even more windows all along it with very realistic rain playing on them from the outside. And there is a particularly striking fenestration finale that we won’t spoil for you.


  • Gorky adopted his name. He was actually born Peshkov. Apparently “gork’ii” is Russian for “bitter”. Phil Gorky and Andrew Gorky have a ring, don’t you think?

6 Responses to “Review – Philistines by Maxim Gorky, National Theatre”

  1. sanderling Says:

    What is it with second acts? They almost always come to The Whingers’ rescue and vindicate reluctant decisions to stick the whole play out and nobly eschew an early night. A five minute intro, followed by the second act and then, possibly, by an Audience Participation Q & A session to fill out the evening might be just the thing the West End is craving for without realising it!

  2. Neil Wallace Says:

    Have to confess that when Andrew phoned me up to invite me I must have misheard. When he said Gorky, I thought he said Corky and consequently spent the whole evening wondering when Deryck Guyler and his washboard would make their appearance.

  3. simon Says:

    Is Nick Hytner moonlighting?

    Advert for Nestle ‘Oats & More’:

  4. sanderling – it takes a lot to make the Whingers squirm with embarrassment, but a post-show Q&A will do it every time so they don’t feature in our perfect evening at the theatre. But you’ve got us started thinking now. Maybe we should start going to Q&As and use them to get responses to the really important questions of the day (booking fees, the decline of the wig, theatre bar prices). Or we could use them – as most people seem to – to show off by talking about what we think for five minutes or more followed by a rather lame “I wondered if you agreed”. Excruciating.

  5. “The Whingers can not finish without saying a word or two about the best fenestration (notre mot du mois) currently to be seen on the West End Stage” – yes, as the Act One curtain/windows rose I thought to myself, “Bill bloody Dudley!” (Once, in the days of dear, departed City Limits magazine, I nearly ran a listings entry for “Pygmalion, written by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Howard Davies, designed to buggery by William Dudley”). In the event I, too, was pleasantly surprised.

    And what is it with Conleth Hill? I love him in everything I see him in, but never recognise him from one outing to the next… yet his transformations are hardly ever as extreme as the one from East German spy in Frayn’s “Democracy” to the dragged-up director in “The Producers”…

  6. He he. City Limits! There’s a name from the past!

    I note that the set was actually by the marvellously named Bunny Christie.

    You’re absolutely right about Conleth Hill. I never recognise him either. I suspect he may be a rather brilliant and under-rated actor. We shall invite him to our next party and put that to rights.

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