The Lower Depths at the Arcola Theatre
Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths is a poignant and morally challenging drama set after the turn of the 20th century, a time where Russia’s failing war effort put a severe strain on the nation. It is a biting and thorough piece that follows the inner turmoil at the heart of the dispossessed and destitute.
In the beginning, the play does not promise much: like an antithesis to life, we are present to the wailing and moaning of drunkards, a cavorting woman (Tricia Kelly) bearing rotten brown teeth, and the severely moribund critically gasping for air. Soon, though, the characters take control, and the responsibility for the outcome of the drama rests solely upon them. With utterly compelling performances from Mark Jax, Abhin Galeya, Doug Rao and Jim Bywater, an impressive multi-layered set design, subtle lighting and impactful music, this production is a spectacularly immersive masterpiece.
Amidst the witty banter between drunks and card-sharps, the copious drinking of vodka – to be expected in a Russian play – the fighting, yelling, sexual provocation, and even the deaths, Helena Kaut-Howson’s direction manages to keep intact that essence of truth that upholds the tradition of work from the Golden-age of Russian Literature; she gazes passed the dirt and rags to find the heart of these people, of all people, and what they desire most: “Everybody lives for something better to come. That’s why we want to be considerate of every man – Who knows what’s in him, why he was born and what he can do?”
With a run time a little over three hours, this emotionally devastating drama will eventually make viewers question their own morality. Our sanity is made to resemble the keys slowly being filed down by Kleshch (Abhin Galeya) in the play. And each character, in the same way, is distilled until they reach their purest form, their truth: “Truth is the God of the free man”, but “Truth is a blade that can turn”. Freedom, it seems, is what it is all about. But who is free? The production’s Christ-like figure, Luka (Jim Bywater), similar to Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin (The Idiot), tells us that a man is free when he pities his fellow men, enough to lift them out of their own destitution. It is fitting that the message of this piece is contextually relevant to present-day London, with homelessness on most corners; it is this reason that The Lower Depths seems a homely and genius fit in the Arcola’s ever-impressive selection of theatre.
The Lower Depths is at Arcola Theatre 11th January until 11th February 2017, for further information or to book visit here.