IN CERTAIN respects, Alexander Ostrovsky was 19th-century Russia's answer to Alan Ayckbourn - a prolific playwright with a merciless eye for the foibles and fraudulences of the nouveau riche merchant class. Though he is only known for a handful of plays in this country, his stock has risen steeply in the last few years thanks to the outstanding Old Vic production of Too Clever by Half and to Cheek By Jowl's gloriously grotesque account of A Family Affair, an exposure of business malpractice and bourgeois materialism that was banned for a decade.
No stranger himself to the hazards and humiliations of a life in the theatre, Ostrovsky was sensitive to the plight of others in the profession. The especially parlous and vulnerable position of actresses in provincial companies is pulled vividly under the spotlight in his late play, Artists and Admirers, now given its second English outing in a sharply etched, zestful production for the RSC by Phyllida Lloyd.
At its centre is Negina (Sylvestra le Touzel), a gifted, idealistic actress under contract to a provincial theatre. She is just about to have a benefit night (where all the proceeds will go to her to supplement her cynically inadequate stipend). The cruel, shaming nature of this system of income-support becomes clear, however, when Negina rebuffs the fatuous advances of a lascivious local bigwig (Christopher Benjamin) who then uses his influence with the impresario to try to sabotage the benefit's chances and her career. In this set-up, you can't afford to alienate your 'admirers'.
When they hear that Negina is living with an unworldly, penniless student (Kevin Doyle), who is endeavouring to educate her, these front-row-of-the-stalls philistines are comically outraged and unnerved. As Rob Edwards's boorish government official remarks, if actresses were to become enlightened, what would men such as they do with themselves? The plot confronts Negina with a dilemma: whether to settle for a high- minded but low-visibility life with the student, or to further her acting career by accepting the patronage of a dishy landowner (Christian Burgess). Implying that, spiritually speaking, there is no such thing as a free launch, this often very funny piece also looks at culture's losing battle in benighted backwaters such as this.
The play's strength, though, is its ambiguity. A good many of the artists we see (such as Denys Hawthorne's irascible, wine-flushed tragedian, who hams his way from free drink to free drink) are scarcely more prepossessing than the philistines. 'I too was in Arcadia,' quotes Martyn Prokofych, the old man who squandered his entire fortune on the theatre and whose pained, sentimental infatuation with Negina's talent is brought to wonderfully embarrassing life by Philip Voss. 'Where would that be?' asks her uneducated mother (excellent Linda Bassett). 'It's a long way from here,' replies Martyn peevishly. 'You've never been there' (disdainful pause) 'And you never will.' All of which puts you right behind the mother.
It would be difficult, too, to take sides with the frustrated, visionary student. After Le Touzel's movingly anguished Negina has departed for Moscow, he rounds on the sniggering bourgeoisie in the farewell committee with a self- righteous diatribe ('I enlighten; you deprave') and assures them that happiness is beyond folk such as they. Whether intentionally or not, the actor increasingly reminds you of Lenin in this scene, so that his line about the continuing cultural struggle, 'We shall see who tires the fastest', strikes an oddly ominous note. You're left feeling that there are, perhaps, worse things than philistinism. 'I am not stimulating,' says another at one point, suffering from a touch of the Dogberries. It's just the word, though, to describe both play and production.
Continues at the Pit, London EC2 (Box office: 071-638 8891).
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies