Maxim Gorky's extraordinary play Enemies has been described as "the missing link between Chekhov and the Russian revolution". It was written in 1906 (a couple of years after The Cherry Orchard) while the author was in political exile. The action is set on the estate of Zakhar Bardin, a liberal-minded landowner who, unlike Chekhov's feckless Gaevs, has moved with the times by becoming co-owner of a factory.
One of the first dramas to deal with industrial unrest, Enemies offers a panoramic view of a society in a state of rapid, paranoid change. The extent of its transformation is brought home when Bardin's reactionary business partner is shot dead while trying to pre-empt a strike by instigating a lock-out of the workers. The police turn the Bardin house into a kangaroo court as they try to identify the murderer.
David Hare has composed a brilliantly pointed adaptation. It's unveiled in a superb production, directed by Michael Attenborough, and the crack 20-strong cast offer the richest display of ensemble acting in London.
Tatyana, Bardin's actress sister-in-law (Amanda Drew) describes the relationship between the old order and the rising proletariat in theatrical terms: "We're like some terrible amateur dramatic society putting on a play. And we've all been given the wrong parts. And the audience hates the play because they can see right through it."
This self-conscious sense of being observed while caught in the headlights of unstoppable disaster is conveyed with objective black comedy and empathetic insight. Mocked and unnerved by the calm of the workers' solidarity, the fractious nobs fall to blaming one another and react to change in conflicting ways.
The boss's brother, Yakov (Jack Davenport), is unable to numb an awareness of his own futility even by becoming an idle drunk. The 18-year-old Nadya (Jodie Whittaker) evolves into a passionate convert to the proletarian cause.
We can't help but view the proceedings in the light of what happened later. But Enemies does not come across as propaganda. This is partly because of its prescience ("In this country, the destruction will be worse than anywhere else," forecasts the prosecutor) and partly because a play censored in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia is not to be lightly accused of partisan sympathies. Unreservedly recommended.
To 24 June (020-7359 4404)