|Estelle Kohler, Ian Richardson, Mike Gwilym, Janet Whiteside, Susan Fleetwood.|
England’s RSC appeared in New York frequently in the 70s, usually at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with plays both new and old. In the present instance they were represented by a 1904 Gorky play, but one that was new to New York, so it wasn’t a true revival.
Gorky’s Enemies had sparked much admiration when given its New York premiere earlier in the decade. His Summerfolk demonstrated even more cogently the playwright’s long-neglected talents, best known mainly for The Lower Depths.
Character, rather than plot, predominates in this sensitively evocative picture of a cross-section of successful members of the Russian bourgeoisie—the descendants of peasants, not, as in Chekhov, the gentry—at the turn of the 20th century. These folk come from the city every summer to their riverside dachas, and return to the city in the fall. In this countryside setting, Gorky introduces his many summerfolk. With great skill, he realizes them three-dimensionally both as creatures to be scorned and people to be savored. They represent a class doomed by the corruption represented by their idle lives, a class soon to be swept away by the tidal wave of the Russian Revolution. Although Gorky’s political viewpoint clearly is on the side of the toiling masses, he offers these apathetic beings full opportunity to defend their way of life.
The three-and-a-half hour drama, which was superbly staged and acted, takes place in in the environs of a dacha owned by Bassov (Norman Rodway), a lawyer, who is married to the Nora Helmer-like Varvara (Estelle Kohler). Their friends and relations, who pass the time in gossip, love-making, quarreling, and adultery, include familiar figures reminiscent of Chekhov’s: a jaded novelist, Shalimov (Ian Richardson); Bassov’s poet-sister, Kaleria Vassilievna (Susan Fleetwood); an engineer, Suslov (Tony Church); his wife, Yulia Filipovna (Lynette Davies); her lover, Zamislov (David Suchet); Suslov’s tycoon uncle, Dvoetochie (Sebastian Shaw); a widowed female doctor, Maria Lvovna (Margaret Tyzack); Varvara’s clownish brother, Vlass Mikhailich (Mike Gwilym), and a host of others.
John Simon reveled in what he called a “wonder” of an event in which “the lofty ideas of a playwright are given magnificent embodiment in a remarkable production” of a “rarer-than-rare play.” “Here Gorky . . . has an exquisite sense of atmosphere, of a social and psychological climate conveyed neither through an unusual plot nor through a significant change in a principal character . . . , but through the subtle yet volatile interaction of a very considerable number of persons used like instruments in a concerto grosso,” he added.
Calling it a sequel to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Clive Barnes loved the play’s blend of “philosophy, humor and honesty,” calling it “marvelous,” a word also used by Douglas Watt, who forgave its “blunt, meandering and derivative” style because it was so ‘brimming with vitality” in both the writing and performances. “The cumulative effect . . . is quite powerful,” noted Edwin Wilson, who was never once bored during the lengthy performance, and who wished he could continue to live with Gorky’s people.
There was universal acclamation for what Simon deemed the “almost flawlessly unified performing” of the ensemble, although Estelle Kohler’s exquisite portrait of the disillusioned Varvara gathered the greatest attention. David Jones’s reputation as a director of Gorky was immeasurably enhanced, and the set and costume designs of O’Brien and Firth added enormously to the work’s quality.
The Royal Shakespeare Company was rewarded with an OBIE Special Citation for its contribution, produced in repertory with Love’s Labour’s Lost.