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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Lyttelton Theatre      Summer 2007

If Anton Chekhov's characters, in all their stasis, were given to even more undergraduate navel-gazing and philosophising about the causes of their unhappiness, they'd turn into Gorky characters.

Put another way, if Gorky's characters would just shut up about what's so special about their personal angst and just get on with the business of being miserable, they'd be at home in Chekhov.

Most of the characters in Gorky's 1902 drama Philistines are unhappy - because they're unloved, because they're bored, because their lives have no purpose, because no one appreciates them, because they drink too much, or just because they're Russian.

And still there is a real play here which, in its last major production, by the RSC in 1985, impressed me as a touching family drama.

But I hardly recognise it as the same play in this openly free adaptation by Andrew Upton which, along with Howard Davies' direction, pulls back to a more objective and considerably less sympathetic point of view.

The adult children of bourgeois parents are aimless and unhappy, the son a university dropout and the daughter overeducated and overpampered in exactly the ways likely to doom her to empty spinsterhood.

The parents are equally unhappy, because they've done everything right and don't understand why their children can't just get on with life.

And indeed, in this adaptation, other members of the younger generation are getting on, falling in love or becoming socialists or just enjoying themselves.

So the first thing that goes wrong here is that the two characters who are meant to be our focus - the son and daughter - are actually the least interesting and least attractive people onstage.

That this is a matter of adaptation and direction is clear not only because I cared for those characters twenty-odd years ago at the RSC, but because I can't fault the actors in front of me here except for the fact that they don't engage me.

Rory Kinnear as the son has been given nothing to play but self-engrossed loser. He plays it very well, but who cares?

The daughter, mooning over a man who happily loves another, is meant to sink into suicidal madness, and my sharpest memory of the RSC version is of the young Fiona Shaw quietly going insane as only Fiona Shaw could.

But Ruth Wilson has been directed to play her as so washed-out from the start that the descent into total anomie doesn't seem much of a journey.

On the other hand, the bourgeois father, who has been rewritten into the villain of the piece, is actually one of the most sympathetic characters, his frustration at his children's unhappiness and their inability or refusal to explain what's wrong made clear and deeply moving by the performance of Phil Davis.

My other strongest memory from 1985 is of Anna Calder-Marshall as the older woman whose love for the son had more than a touch of the maternal to it, but who was going to marry him and help make a man of him.

To stress the adaptation's generation-gap and changing-world themes, adapter and director have made the character younger and somewhat reduced her significance, so she is now just a life-loving woman who will, at best, perk the kid up somewhat, but Justine Mitchell does what she can with a couple of strong scenes.

Conleth Hill as the obligatory witty drunk and Mark Bonnar as a young man skipping the philosophising and just getting on with life and love also have their moments.

There's still a play here, with characters who hold your interest, if not your sympathy, for nearly three hours. But - as a matter of deliberate choice by adapter and director, it would appear - it has little of the emotional power Gorky's drama can have.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Philistines - National Theatre 2007

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