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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Almeida Theatre     Summer 2006

Maxim Gorky was a younger contemporary of Chekhov, and his plays have some surface resemblances to his mentor's. Like The Cherry Orchard, Enemies is about the passing of a lovely but enervated aristocracy in the face of looming revolutionary changes.

But Gorky's 1907 play is far more politically aware and explicit, and therein lie its strengths and weaknesses.

The Bardin family are landowners who have branched out into manufacturing, hardly noticing that they've morphed from aristocrats to bourgeoisie in the process, and while the head of the family is kind and liberal, his factory manager is a hard-liner. 

When the manager is killed in an industrial dispute, the army is called in to crack down. Surprisingly, the openly socialist workers welcome repression and even imprisonment as part of the revolutionary process, while the boss and his family react in various ways to the discovery of their impotence and irrelevance.

The various groups - the generally well-meaning boss's family, the manager's vengeful widow and brother, and the politically aware workers - interact in almost every permutation, creating a string of debates and discussions on morality, the class struggle, historical inevitability and the like.

The discussions are all good, with everyone given his say, though Gorky's own view is clear - that they are all pawns in an unstoppably Marxist march of history.

The problem is that, at least in this new adaptation by David Hare, the characters have little life outside their function as spokespersons for various debating positions.

It may be - I'm guessing here - that the adaptation and condensing down to just over two hours has cut away much of the scene- and character-setting naturalistic background that would give the play more dramatic texture.

Or it may just be that this is the difference between Chekhov, who wrote human dramas with political undertones, and Gorky, who writes a political play weakly anchored in a human setting.

At any rate, however much the ethical and political discussions may hold your interest and attention, I doubt that you will find yourself caring much for any of the characters - not because they are unsympathetic but because they are too vaguely sketched in to be real.

This also means that there isn't much opportunity for the actors to do more than walk on, say their piece in one discussion or another, and then walk off again.

You can see what they're trying to play - particularly Sean Chapman as the well-meaning but out-of-his-depth boss, Amanda Root as his wife whose coping mechanism is simply to blind herself to everything going on around her, Amanda Drew as the actress sister-in-law who tries to maintain an amused aloofness, Edward Peel as a politically sophisticated worker - but the script just gives them too little to work with.

Director Michael Attenborough admirably keeps the play moving and the discussions interesting, but hasn't fleshed it out.

If you respond to the theatre of ideas, if you want to see the Russian Revolution being anticipated by a prescient playwright, then you want Gorky rather than Chekhov, and here he is, being done as well as you could ask.

If, like me, you prefer Chekhov, then all the ways Gorky differs may disappoint you.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Enemies - Almeida Theatre 2006

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