We all laugh heartily when anyone recalls how the Restoration playwright Nahum Tate rewrote King Lear by adding a happy ending, with Edgar marrying Cordelia. Tate referred to Shakespeare’s play as ‘a heap of jewels unstrung and unpolished, yet so dazzling in their disorder that I soon perceived I had seized a treasure’. We’ve learned not to try to ‘improve’ the classics to suit our modern tastes. Or have we? I was sharply reminded of Nahum Tate’s patronising approach to Shakespeare when I read Andrew Upton’s programme note for the National Theatre’s production of his version of Maxim Gorky’s Philistines. ‘It is all raw material and on the initial encounter seems like a backpack of life-so-far just unzipped and tipped unceremoniously onto the stage.’
The climax of the family drama comes when a minor character bursts in to tell us that two other minor characters have been arrested for inciting soldiers to mutiny by staging a subversive play. The authoritarian father Vasily Bessemyonov admits he has denounced his children’s friends to the Tsarist police. The revelation provokes the breakup of the household, with son Pyotr, foster-son Nil, lodgers and tenants all marching out.
The only problem is that Gorky didn’t write any of this. The final plot twist is entirely the work of Andrew Upton, who seems to have thought that the final act of Philistines needed some sexing-up.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of intelligent adaptation in the theatre, and the National is particularly good at it. Their current production of Rafta, Rafta! is a brilliant update by Ayub Khan-Din of Bill Naughton’s All In Good Time, in which the northern family is now Asian. I also greatly enjoyed Moira Buffini’s Dying For It at the Almeida, based on Nikolai Erdman’s 1920s comedy The Suicide. At the Donmar I’ve admired Patrick Marber’s unforgettable After Miss Julie, which moves Strindberg into 1940s England, and his Don Juan in Soho, after Molière.
One may take the post-modern view that theatre is a living art and it’s entitled to do what it likes with the works of dead playwrights, providing they are out of copyright. That’s pretty much the approach of cinema, where nothing is less sacred than words written on the page by the screenwriter, alive or dead. But I would argue that theatre also has a duty to dead authors, and should apply a few ground rules. The adaptations I’ve just mentioned all have one thing in common: they have all been presented with fresh titles under the names of the new writers, not the original authors. That to me is the difference between an adaptation and a ‘version’ of a classic play, which is what Philistines claims to be.
Upton is an Australian writer who runs a theatre in Sydney with his wife Cate Blanchett. Significantly, much of his career has been in films. He based his version on a literal translation from Russian by Charlotte Pyke, following today’s standard theatrical practice. The idea is a sound one – that a literal transation needs an extra twist from an experienced writer to turn it into convincing stage dialogue. Unfortunately Upton, presumably with the blessing of director Howard Davies, has produced a loose adaptation which in many ways is inferior to Gorky’s original. I greatly admire Davies’ work, but despite some great acting performances, this production suffers from the incoherence of Upton’s text and what seems to be the deliberately un-Russian style of Bunny Christie’s set and costumes.
Gorky’s first play for Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre shows the influence of Chekhov, whose wife Olga Knipper played the flighty widow Yelena, the upstairs tenant who seduces Pyotr, a student who has been expelled from university for political activities. Significant lines about Russia’s social tensions were cut by the censors, the first night in St Petersburg was packed with policemen, and the uncut text of the play sold an astonishing 60,000 copies in its first year. I’ve been reading that original Russian edition in the British Library. When it was staged in London in 1906, the reviewer for The Star thought it was wordy. ‘If Russian revolutionaries are like Gorky’s heroes, then the bureaucracy can sleep soundly. The actions of the revolutionaries will be drowned in a sea of words.’ Since then it has been rarely seen here, though John Caird revived it for the RSC in 1985. Because it’s little known, reviewers don’t seem to have picked up on the extent of Upton’s rewrites.
The Russian title Meshchane is untranslatable, more class-specific than ‘Philistines’ and more pejorative than ‘petty-bourgeois’. It really indicates a state of mind. The Bessemyonov family, ruled by a patriarch, is a metaphor for Tsarist society on the eve of the 1905 revolution. It’s not a masterpiece like Chekhov’s Three Sisters (few plays are) but it’s a powerful piece of writing, marred by the one-dimensional character of foster-son Nil, described by Gorky as the key character in the play. Nil drives trains and is an incurable optimist about life, a priggish precursor of the ‘positive heroes’ of Stalinist socialist realism. Chekhov would have seen through him immediately, but Gorky presents him without a trace of irony.
In the original, Nil is 27, a year younger than Pyotr’s sister Tanya, who tries to poison herself when Nil announces he is to marry not her but Polya, the 21-year-old maid. This age difference is crucial. Unfortunately in this production Nil is played by Mark Bonnar, who appears to be a good ten years older than newcomer Ruth Wilson, playing Tanya, so the pathos of Tanya being left on the shelf is lost. The acting is excellent throughout, with Conleth Hill outstanding as the drunken lodger, Rory Kinnear as Pyotr and Phil Davis as the martinet father. But Upton’s crude rewriting strips out a lot of Gorky’s subtle indications of character and status, ignores much of the Russian context and makes the relationship between uneducated parents and educated children one of unredeemed hostility. In the original, there are moments of affection, and it’s very clear that under the surface, Pyotr and his father have more in common than either will admit. Upton’s ‘improved’ denouement weakens the play because the final bustup comes not as a result of the family’s internal tensions but because of an offstage event affecting secondary characters.
It’s not clear whether Upton is trying to imagine the play that Gorky might have written if there had been no censorship. If so, he’s on slippery ground. In fact he cuts many of the same lines as the Tsarist censors did, including the drunken lodger’s observation that ‘In Russia it’s better to be a drunk or a tramp than a sober honest citizen’. When Pyotr announces he is to marry Yelena, Gorky’s text makes clear that because students are not allowed to marry, this spells the end of his aspiration to return to university. Upton’s version omits this point entirely, blunting the impact of his decision on his horrified parents.
Gorky wrote in the same naturalistic tradition as Chekhov, and any writer or director who tries to wrench his plays out of the time, place and social context in which they are written is taking a huge risk. That’s why Katie Mitchell’s update of The Seagull at the National in 2006 seemed to me fundamentally misconceived. Unlike Shakespeare or Brecht, naturalism only transmits a universal message if the production creates an authentic illusion on stage of a specific time and place. Upton doesn’t have much faith in Gorky’s style of theatre, writing in his programme notes that ‘…Naturalism nowadays is about as eye-opening and challenging…as Speech Day’.
So he wrenches the language of the play forward by a hundred years, so that characters tell each other to ‘piss off’. I swore I heard one of the characters lapse into 2007 youth-speak by saying ‘whatever’, though I couldn’t find it in the printed script . But when Vasily denounces the ‘yids’ (zhidy) Upton weakens the impact of his antisemitism by making him use the much weaker ‘Jews’. The worst linguistic makeover comes in the final scene, when Yelena tells Pyotr’s parents she will never let him go but may just live with him without getting married. ‘Just fuck him. Just fuck him and fuck him and fuck him and never let him out of me.’ Needless to say, Gorky didn’t write this.
In this production Phil Davis as Vasily is made to repeatedly shout ‘This is my house!’ like a property-owning bourgeois. But in Gorky’s text he uses the phrase only once. The point about Vasily is that he is coarse and uneducated, but this production turns him from a housepainter into a prim figure rather like one of Ibsen’s bank managers. The setting of Gorky’s play is a cramped living room with a sink, an iron stove and oil lamps. Vasily may be a prosperous tradesman by the standards of Russia in 1902, but he still rents out rooms to lodgers. Instead of these modest surroundings, this production gives us a spacious gentrified apartment that takes up the entire Lyttelton stage, complete with central heating radiators and electric light. The crowning absurdity comes after the interval when instead of the cook dusting the furniture as Gorky specifies, she comes on with an antique electric vacuum cleaner. It may seem pedantic to point out that the vacuum cleaner was only invented in 1908 and wasn’t in widespread use in Russia until the 1960s. But if you’re going to be too clever by half, why stop at the vacuum cleaner? Why not swap the samovar for a Goblin Teasmade?
I couldn’t help drawing unfavourable comparisons with another play I saw recently – Anna Mackmin’s meticulous revival of David Storey’s In Celebration, in which every detail of a 1960s miner’s home is exactly right, down to the knitted teacosy. Authenticity isn’t an end in itself, but in naturalistic drama it’s an essential tool which has been ignored here. Yelena comes on in what appear to be 1930s silk pajamas, while Vasily wears a three-piece English suit rather than a Russian tunic. A real Russian home would have an icon in the corner. In short, the design is perversely out of period and out of place.
Gorky, I fear, would be puzzled by this out-of-focus version of his play and I can’t help feeling he would have preferred to have his name removed from it altogether. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But when a version strays this far from the original, it might have been better to put Andrew Upton’s name on the credits and give it a fresh title. How about ‘Piss off, you Philistines!’ ?