The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky is considered to be the Russian’s playwright’s masterpiece; a play that chronicles the lives of the underclass living in a doss house in Moscow in the early years of the twentieth century. Ariette Taylor, who has spent the better part of seven years bringing this production to the stage, has crafted a work that is bold, ambitious and above all humane.
This production is a revelation, in many senses of the word, revealing not only its beauty and elegance but also its underlying motivations and theatricality as it unfolds.
But first a caveat: The Lower Depths is a work of classic theatre. It makes no apologies for its large cast, and long running time (approximately three hours). For those theatregoers who prefer their theatre in small bite-sized hour-long performances with a cast of no more than four, be warned, this is not that kind of show.
At the spiritual core of the show is Alex Menglet’s Luka (or as is he is referred to by the others, ‘Grandpa’ or ‘Old Man’) whose arrival at the doss house signals not only the end of the long-suffering Anna’s life (played beautifully by Genevieve Picot) but the beginning of a new kind of hope, which inspires the inhabitants of the house to raise themselves up from their situation.
The Lower Depths is a performance in which everyone is given the opportunity to shine. Each actor has their moment to hold the stage and reveal some insight about their character. Ariette Taylor has assembled an amazing ensemble to realise this work: Chloe Armstrong, Heather Bolton, Syd Brisbane, Marco Chiappi, Luke Elliot, Paul English, Bessie Holland, Alex Menglet, Denis Moore, Stewart Morritt, Natalia Novikova, Genevieve Picot, Adam Pierzchalski, Malcolm Robertson and Greg Stone.
It’s no doubt that different viewers will have their own favourite characters, and for me these included Greg Stone’s tragicomic Actor, Denis Moore’s diabolical Kostylyov and the simplicity and completeness of Bessie Holland’s Kvashnya. Although it is unfair to single out any one performer, because as ensemble they are peerless: they are all performers who revel in the world they are creating and in turn invite the audience to become a part of their journey.
Many of the cast have worked with Taylor before during her collaboration with Daniel Keene on the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, and it is no doubt this familiarity that enables Taylor to elicit the performances that she does. The show is also strengthened by Adrienne Chisolm’s clever and economical set design and Emma Valente’s elegant and understated lighting design.
As a narrative Gorky’s play does not offer neat solutions, or even a linear path, instead it offers a collection of moments that when strung together reveal the lives of the people who inhabit his story. Perhaps why The Lower Depths works so well is the unique approach that Taylor has taken to adapting this text. Alex Menglet, a native Russian speaker, translated the script word for word, and then this script was given to the actors to interpret. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but instead we have a translation that not only uniquely fits the mouth of each actor, but also succeeds in explaining the complex emotions involved in this very Russian play and making it accessible and relevant to an Australian audience.
It has to be said that this is the type of production that the Melbourne Theatre Company should be doing and for whatever reason isn’t and it is to the credit of Taylor and the venue fortyfivedownstairs for realising and filling that gap.
A simple epitaph for The Lower Depths would be: It must be seen.
This is because The Lower Depths is the theatre event of the year.
Ariette Taylor and fortyfivedownstairs present
The Lower Depths
by Maxim Gorky
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne
Previews: Wed 29 Oct & Thur 30 Oct at 7.30pm
Dates: 31 October to 29 November
Times: Tuesday to Saturday 8pm (except Wednesday & Sunday 6.30pm, Saturday matinee 29 Nov 2.30pm
Bookings: (03) 9662 9966 or at www.fortyfivedownstairs.com
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