I spent the first half of this production deeply perplexed. I'm a big fan of Gogol but couldn't work out where he found the time to write this sprawling play. I mean when he first hit the Western radar in 1977 it was deep in the Cold War where he managed to form an alliance with M that was to be strained but kept relatively civil in ensuing decades. He must have been working 24/7 when Hugo Drax built his space station and by 1983 he was having to bust General Orlov's ass for his crazy world-domination scheming.
He even put up with Pola Ivanova's bungling and was open-minded enough to award an Order of Lenin medal to a British spy. In short, he was a busy guy. So how did he manage to pump out a big play like this?
Then I realised that I was mixing my Gogols!
I should have been thinking of the Russian author Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol! And he didn't even write The Lower Depths, Maxim Gorky did! The one from Gorky Park!
Oh boy was I embarrassed.
I have a bit of a problem with Russian theatre. Not the recent stuff, just the classics. Actually, I suppose I have a problem with classics in general. I don't enjoy watching Chekhov but then I don't enjoy watching Brecht or Ibsen or Shakespeare either. There are exceptions - Hayloft's Platonov was great and I'm looking forward to Titus - but that's because the texts aren't handled with kid gloves in those cases.
I don't think Ariette Taylor's production of The Lower Depths handles the script too cautiously either, and it's a first-rate piece. The acting is outstanding and the design is beautiful (even if half the audience can't see one particular part of the space because it's behind them for some reason). I'm just not into Russian social realism of the early twentieth century. If I want to see people in blankets with hacking coughs struggling against institutionalised oppression and questioning the meaning of life I'll talk to people on Melbourne's streets. I like theatre that deals with that, not a La Boheme kind of romanticised impoverished past.
Then again, the classics are classics for a reason and this is a very good production of one of them. And I do think it's pretty ace that Gorky took on the name (not his real name) because it literally means "bitter". I left this show at interval, though, not through any fault of the production itself but just through my own inability to engage with the text. And I'm still dealing with the time, years ago, when I struggled through Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Praised as it may be, that brick of a novel felt like a month of being whacked in the Gogols with a 1 kilo book.
Last night I went to Play:Ground in the Carlton Gardens. It’s a Master of Theatre Practice project about child soldiers. It is largely performed by children. As the program notes, though, it is also not suitable for children. I got there late, was up the back and didn’t have much of a clue as to what was happening so I’ll go again tonight. One of the cast bios is as follows: “i am six. i like to run. i have a dog. my dog’s name is nelly. i live near the city. if i was in war, i would hide.”
I also whipped up to The Village in Edinburgh Gardens afterwards to catch Scattered Tacks again. Brilliant stuff. It’s on again tonight at 8pm I believe.
THAT IS ALL