In Hell (after Gorky)

Adapted by the company from The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky / 2021, Embassy Theatre, Central / Directed by Ben Naylor and Natasha Fedorova / Set by Anisha Fields / Costume by Manuela Harding / Lighting by Ben Jacobs / Sound by Beth Duke / Fight direction by Bethan Clark / Voice coaching by Alex Bingley / Dramaturgy by Yuval Brigg / Camera direction by Jackie Teboul / Film edited by Keir Burrows

Gorky’s 1902 masterpiece for the Moscow Arts Theatre, The Lower Depths, set in a homeless shelter, has been on my radar for a long time. It’s obviously a great piece for a drama school: a large ensemble cast of well-drawn characters under pressure. But the available English translations have always disappointed me; inevitably, the very colloquial nature of the dialogue renders each version very much an artefact of its own place and moment. The answer, of course, was to create a new version of the play, for this place and moment, and indeed for and by these people.

Working for the first time in a directing team with the extraordinary Natasha Fedorova, we adopted a novel approach to the translation of the play and creation of the production: each of the actors was tasked with writing the dialogue for their own particular role, and this was honed into a coherent adaptation in rehearsal. This in itself was a challenge, and resulted in a very different rehearsal process from the physically-driven experimentation with space I usually undertake. We spent a good deal of the rehearsals sitting round together reading, discussing, cutting, re-reading, consulting the Russian, re-re-reading, cutting again; changing, adapting, a communal and collaborative process of writing. With the characters occupying a single space consistently (for largely design-pragmatic reasons we’d brought the outdoor Act 3 into the same space as the other acts), this approach actually seemed to help concentrate the pressure of this extraordinary, bleak, humane play. What was remarkable for me was the degree to which, through the literary and indeed sedentary early rehearsals, these characters emerged as fully formed physical beings from this process, despite its concentration on the word rather than the body.

The actors were challenged to write their characters starting from themselves, finding their own voices in Gorky’s play, choosing their own paths through the minefields of translation. Casting was obviously key; and as a result all the characters took on elements of the identity of their creators. We had decided from the beginning not to set the play in period but to imagine it taking place a few years from now, in a dystopic but entirely credible pan-European environment in which the last societal protections have been removed. In 1902 The Lower Depths was a furious and foreboding play; we wished to make it so for 2021.

We made this production as the wave of omicron rolled inexorably in. The contemporary pressures we were exploring dramatically – climate crisis, wealth divide, migration, exploitation – were thrown into sharp and immediate relief by the very real pressure of trying to make the work in the face of almost inevitable lockdown. We were in the end able to stage the piece, in the teeth of the storm, to tiny masked audiences, huddling from each other in the cavernous space of the Embassy; and the performance conditions felt deeply appropriate to the piece – which begins with the sound of the moribund Eva coughing.

However, during the latter stages of rehearsal and during the run four actors – a quarter of the company – had to go into covid-isolation; as a consequence we had to bring in two understudies at very short notice, both alumni of the 2020 cohort. This was especially challenging given that each character had been written by the original actors, drawing on their own identity. Issame Chayle reinvented the Mongolian Borjigin (Gorky’s ‘The Tartar’, originally played and written by Wenquan Yu) as Moroccan Bilal; Aaron Lynn recreated Steve Hanzheng Wu’s Chinese-American Jingle (Gorky’s Bubnov) as an Orthodox Jew, and then mid-run took over Vassilis Awad’s junkie Actor (as he appears in the film below) with less than two hours’ preparation and an earpiece (with me on the end of it). The experience of staging the production despite the circumstances to some extent took over from every other possible focus: as much as anything, I’m proud that this play went on at all.

That the “show must go on” mentality inevitably took over should not obscure the extraordinary work each of the actors brought to their roles: writing their parts evidently gave them a very significant degree of ownership, even as covid tried to rob us collectively of it. It also shouldn’t detract from the thoughtfulness and detail of the show’s stark visuals and insistent aural design.

The film below captures the final closed performance of a piece which, due to the changing cast, never really achieved a fixed or ‘final’ form. Once again, covid was shaping our art against our wishes. Nonetheless, it feels as timely as any piece I’ve directed, made consciously as a response to its own context and environment.

All photos by @camharle