The Lower Depths – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Maxim Gorky (translated by Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair)
Director: Helena Kaut-Howson
Reviewer: Deborah Parry

Even if you happen to be a scholar of Russian literature, in combination with having an extensive knowledge of the Russian revolution(s) then trying to get your head around The Lower Depths is still likely to be perplexing – don’t let this deter you, though, because this highly competent production at the Arcola Theatre is one that impresses – regardless of the challenging narrative.

tell-us-block_editedIf on one end of a scale there is frivolous farcical theatre, then on the other end The Lower Depths would sit – this is heavy and gritty naturalistic drama, with few occasional moments of lightness. The characters are – supposedly – based on real inhabitants of a homeless shelter that Russian playwright Maxim Gorky encountered around the turn of the 20th century; here they live in an overcrowded basement apartment, crumbling beneath an almost hopeless existence, where they have little money and even less obvious purpose to their lives. There is great desire to escape and they do so into alcohol, lust, love, religion and – occasionally – kindness.

It is an intense theatre experience – a young woman ‘Anna’ is dying on stage before us and her husband, Kleshtch, is not able to offer her any comfort during her final hours – it is kind, philosophical and mysterious stranger Luka who soothes her as she passes. Most seem to lack empathy and there is absolute cruelty too; the purest and most gentle character ‘Natasha’ is savagely beaten by her sister and brother-in-law, due to their jealousy and spite. The characters live in a state of apathy – they spend their days reminiscing about past highs and lows, successes and failures, appearing unable to see beyond them. Occasionally, someone will profess plans as to how they will change their present circumstances and even make attempts to do so but they never get anywhere and are soon back to their frozen disenfranchised state. The title of the play then works on more than one level – these individuals are literately living within the lows of a building and are also sinking emotionally – they are experiencing rock bottom and there is little pleasure in their lives to distract them from their torment.

Due to its heaviness, wordiness and lack of action within the plot – The Lower Depths is not an easy play to sit through; even Chekhov criticised the piece for having too many characters, which he felt made it confusing for an audience to follow. On this occasion, though, it is the immensely talented and impressive cast who save us from feeling alienated, constantly drawing us back in. Even the latter part of the second act, which actually feels more like a third – and contrasts with the rest of the play, in that there is very little action and we are mostly subjected to various characters’ large complex monologues – is elevated by the skill of the cast; they inhabit this world in an utterly convincing way with performances that are captivating.

Design is simple, minimal and effective – what looks like scaffolding is enough to give the illusion of a barren and cold basement apartment, allowing our imagination to fill in the blanks. Costumes are well conceived, adding to the feeling of an unsanitary environment due their utter uncleanness. Nods are given to the characters’ personalities and past lives – particularly Natasha’s rainbow coloured Wellington boots, conveying her child-like expressiveness and hidden layers of optimism. What confuses, though– despite this play being set at the turn of the century – is the contemporary clothing, along with the aforementioned set design, which gives the impression of some sort of generic post-apocalyptic world rather than early 20th Century Russia – but, perhaps, that is the intention.

The Lower Depths is not a crowd pleaser and can feel like the sort of theatre trip you’d be forced to go on when studying A-Level English Literature but this production has been so competently staged that it’s worth visiting the Arcola for this reason alone.

Runs until 11 February 2017 | Image: Robert Workman

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