The Arcola Theatre in Dalston recently announced their Revolution season, to mark the Russian Revolution of 1917. It kicks off with The Lower Depths, a 1901-02 play by Maxim Gorky that explores the lives of a group of down-and-outs. Translated by Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair, the play is directed by Helena Kaut-Howson, whose version of Chekhov’s Platonov, Sons Without Fathers, I enjoyed at this venue a few years ago.
In a dingy basement, a former aristocrat, a poet, a sick woman and assorted other beggars live together, paying rent to a ruthless landlord. The play follows the group over the course of a few days. Gradually the focus settles on certain members of the group: newcomer Luka, a kind, selfless otherworldly man like something out of Dostoyevsky, and the sister of the landlord’s wife, who has fallen in love with one of the residents but risks provoking her sister’s ire.
Yes, the play is a bit long and unrelenting but the misery of the characters is profoundly documented without sentimentality. There isn’t a single weak link in the large cast, and the set makes the most of the unusual Arcola space.
If you’re at all fascinated by Russian history and the origins of theatre, this play is definitely worth seeing.