The Lower Depths
Finborough Theatre Spring 2007
I'd need a close textual comparison to prove it, but my gut feeling is that Phil Willmott's new version of Gorky's Lower Depths is a very free adaptation.
It's not just the sometimes jarring modern language (including the ubiquitous casual obscenities of contemporary English, notable only because they feel out of place), but the sense that Willmott has changed the tone and focus of the original.
Gorky's 1902 play is an almost plotless but generally sympathetic look at the absolute dregs of society, a group of down-and-outs dossing in the basement of a cheap lodging house.
Some have fallen from more respectable pasts, usually through drink, while others have always known only poverty. They alternately bicker with and support each other, just trying to make it through another day.
Passing through is a philosophical stranger who sympathises, counsels, tells parables, encourages truth when it is most helpful and fantasies when they are most comforting, and then moves on, leaving no one better off materially but most a little happier.
Phil Willmott, serving as his own director, seems to have shifted the emphasis of the play away from this philosophical level and toward what little bits of actual plot there are.
And so the traveller, played with sympathy and just a hint of mysticism by Richard Gofton, remains in the background in a minor key, while the story of the thief (Charlie Watts), the landlady (Olivia Macdonald) and her sister (Louise Shuttleworth) takes centre stage.
In one way this is an improvement, making it less of a static mood piece and more of a play; in another, it loses some of the original's meanings and evocative power.
Acting is generally on a respectable but not outstanding fringe level, some of the secondary figures settling for a single exaggerated note to their characterisations.
As always, this modest above-a-pub theatre startles with the inventiveness, solidity and power of its set design, here by Nicky Bunch.
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The Lower Depths - Finborough Theatre 2007