First Night: Enemies, Almeida, London

Hare shows breadth with this sublime retelling of Gorky classic
Click to follow

Maxim Gorky's extraordinary play Enemies was memorably described by one critic 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 play is set on the estate of Zakhar Bardin, a liberal-minded landowner who, unlike Chekhov's feckless Gaevs, has moved with the times to the extent of 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 this bewildering transformation is brought home when Bardin's ruthless reactionary business partner is shot dead while trying to pre-empt a strike over a violent foreman by locking out the workers. The investigating police descend and turn the Bardin household into a kangaroo court as they endeavour to identify the murderer.

David Hare has written a brilliantly pointed, fresh and slimmed-down adaptation of the piece. It's unveiled now in a superb production, directed by Michael Attenborough at the Almeida where the crack 20-strong cast offer the richest display of detailed, insightful ensemble-acting in London. Tatyana, Bardin's actress sister-in-law (a seductive mix of languor and longing in Amanda Drew's spot-on performance) characterises the now-confusing relationship of the bourgeoisie to 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" - the stagehands and technicians reflecting that "You know, I don't think I'd be broken-hearted if this play were to close".

The title is double-edged, referring less to the external enemy, the workers (who display stalwart solidarity), than to the dissension within the threatened classes. Their conflicting reactions to change - from the descent into despairing alcoholism of Jack Davenport's self-mocking Yakov, the boss's drunken brother, to the revolutionary aspirations of the somewhat stridently empathetic 18-year-old Nadya (Jodie Whitacker) - collide with a terrific tragicomic force in this production. All troubled, limp decency, Sean Chapman's excellent, increasingly desperate Bardin is hurled by the turmoil against the limits of his liberalism.

We can't help but apply hindsight to this spectacle of an endangered species, caught in the headlights of history, and of the victimised dissidents who in years to come could well have graduated to a secret police force that made their Tsarist forerunners look like rank amateurs. The effect, though, is not damaging for the play shows a remarkable prescience. Stephen Noonan's saturnine prosecutor makes a chilling prognosis: "If you want a prediction, then you may have it. In this country, the destruction will be worse than anywhere else." Enemies has the strange, honourable distinction of having been censored in both pre- and post-revolutionary Russia, which is a good index of the range of its sympathies. Unreservedly recommended.