Saturday 1 April 2017

Summerfolk - Theatre Review

What: Summerfolk
When: 23 - 26 March
Where: Theatre Works
Written by: Maxim Gorky
Directed by: Robert Johnson
Performed by: Elisa Armstrong, Kerrie-Anne Baker, Amy Bradney-George, James Christensen, Nick Clark, Alisha Eddy, Charlotte Fox, Tom Heath, Luke Lennox, David Meadows, Sarah Nicolazzo, Seton Pollock, Nicholas Rijs, Alex Rouse, and Yuchen Wang.
Set by: James Lew
Costumes by: Carletta Childs
Sound by: Liam Bellman-Sharpe

David Meadows, Yuchen Wang, Seton Pollock, Alex Rouse, Nicholas Rijs, Alisha Eddy, James Christensen, Elisa Armstrong, and Sarah Nicolazzo
Summerfolk is the latest production from the nascent company Burning House Theatre and comes off the back of their successful 2016 production The Tragedy of Coriolanus. Both of these plays have been presented at Theatre Works in St Kilda whilst founding member and director Johnson undertakes his Masters degree in directing at VCA.

The play itself was written by Maxim Gorky in 1904 and is a typical social realist play of that era consisting of a huge cast (over 15 characters) and a meandering story line. Gorky was a part of the Moscow Theatre group which consisted of Stanislavski and Anton Chekhov and, in fact, Summerfolk is said to loosely based on Chekhov's life.

Gorky wrote novels as well as plays. His earlier (and perhaps most famous) play is The Lower Depths written in 1901. The Lower Depths is a bleak work which investigates the brutality, odd comradeship, and never ending changelessness of a strata of society with little to no agency in the world - the morbidly poor.

Summerfolk on the other hand, is a play which reflects Gorky's growing sense of optimism, activism, and wish for change. The play looks at the rise of a new social strata - the intelligentsia who were the children of the conscious working class. From humble beginnings, this emerging class were educated into a life of comfort and ease and in the play Summerfolk Gorky is calling to them to bring their forebears with them into a better life. He is saying that with opportunity comes responsibility to their families and their society. Their gifts are not to be squandered and dissipated, but to be honoured and expanded upon. He is asking for a social conscience in a world of idleness and waste.

In the program notes Johnson says " we move toward a new Cold War...and the growing divide between the rich and the poor, it feels we are not so removed from Maxim Gorky's world." I agree, especially with all of the concern surrounding the priorities of Gen Y and the Millennials.

Unfortunately, none of these concerns are reflected in Johnson's direction. Focusing on the "summer langour and romance" Johnson fails to bring any sense of urgency or concern to this production at all.

What he does do well is manage space on the stage. With 15 cast members the stage could become a messy place indeed. It is possible to argue that Summerfolk is supposed to be messy - one of Meadow's characters constantly talks about the mess they leave behind. Leaving that aside however, Johnson creates a variety of tableaux which are interesting and cover the entire stage space well.

Having said that, he has prioritised this over the world of the play and it is not an exaggeration to say that every entrance and exit of every character was line dependent. Each actor would enter stage to say their lines and then leave again once they had said their piece. This made for an incredibly tedious and frustrating evening with certain somnolent characteristics.

Nothing in the design elements worked to make any statements either. To some extent, hearing this on radio would have been a very similar experience.

The actors generally did well but because of a lack of directorial intention they were all just acting. Gorky's work is social realism but half the cast sat in melancholic Russian acting and the other half were playing in modern physical Shakespearean style. I guess if I had to choose I preferred the Shakespearean style because even though none of the performances demonstrated any real connection or development, at least the physicality provided a point of energy.

There were some stand out performances. Heath played a memorable Vass, and Eddy and Baker were a wonderful mother and daughter combination. Bradney-George also had a certain hypnotic element to her understated naturalism.

Unfortunately they were counterbalanced by Fox (Vavara) who demonstrated no vivacity and Wang (Suslov) who seemed to miss the bit in the script where he was called a drunkard by his wife Yulia (played by Nicolazzo). Nicolazzo gave a valiant performance but it was overshadowed by the lack of fabric in her costumes.

I admire Johnson for the ambition of this project. Summerfolk is a play of scope and scale which makes it almost impossible to stage these days. There is a reason for that though, which is about lack of resources. Not just money, but also time - time to rehearse, time to discover and develop themes, time to explore connections and relationships.

I guess in the end I am saying this project, whilst pretty and ambitious, had no heart or soul. The only glimpses of why we were watching it came in the didactic words of Gorky towards the end. In a world which rejects didactic theatre this is great example of why it is important for playwrights to make their statements clearly and boldly rather than trusting their work to fate.

2 Stars

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