I’ve seen a few plays by Russian playwright Maxim Gorky, and when I discovered there would be a production of his 1907 work The Last Ones, I resolved to book a ticket. The play focuses on one family during the troubled days of 1905, just after revolution, with trouble still stirring in the air.
What immediately struck me about the play was the changed layout of the Jermyn Street Theatre, with several rows moved to either side of the stage. The set featured a carpet and heavy wallpaper burned out from the centre, as if it represented the burnt-out heart of the family.
The play centres around the Kolomiitsev family: the wealthy Yakov, who lives with his ex-police chief brother Ivan, Ivan’s wife Sonya, and their five children. There are hints that Yakov and Sonya have a history, with the latter in fear of her tyrannical, corrupt husband. Ivan cares only for his eldest children, a similarly corrupt police officer and a daughter to whom he behaves in a grotesque lascivious fashion. He terrorises his younger progeny, the soft-hearted youngest son and the innocent Vera, whose happiness is about to be challenged. Only Lyubov, crippled in an accident when young, dares to challenge him.
All of the characters are complex and their relationships with one another are explored in depth throughout the play. Annabel Smith as Lyubov and Daragh O’Malley as Ivan are particularly good in a talented ensemble cast. Gorky’s work maintains a sense of unease, with a sense of imminent change hanging over the characters. This could be interpreted as the tension resulting from Yakov’s illness, his anticipated death raising the question of who is going to receive his inheritance, but it could also be interpreted as the impending death of the old order.
The Last Ones won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a play I really did enjoy; and incidentally, a strong farewell to outgoing artistic director Anthony Biggs.