Despite being written less than 10 years after The Seagull, Summerfolk by Maxim Gorky, feels like a long-distance love letter to Chekhov. The premise is clear enough: A loose group of newly upper class family and friends spend their summer free from the everyday bothers they used to contend with.
They call themselves the ‘Summerfolk’ – an idle tribe who prefer to drink and speak of high intellectual concepts rather than engage over anything actually matters. Think of it like a near-three hour episode of Dawson’s Creek set in the Russian countryside.
As the group ferment in their own heightened rhetoric, the centre – a marriage between Varvara (Charlotte Fox) and Sergei (Seton Pollock) – begins to rot away, and, by the end of the season, everything implodes. Under a receding sun, the poor feast on scraps left behind. A bigger downfall is eventually coming.
In terms of content, the script is hard work on both actor and audience. Director, Robert Johnson, has made the wise choice to embrace the pretension in the text by staging it (mostly) that way. A near constant jingly-jangly guitar plays underneath, regardless of what’s happening on stage, lending everything an extra layer of over-earnestness.
Outside of these ornate times, then, smaller moments are able stand out, such as the simple playing of a single piano key during early scenes. While a declaration of love between Vlass (Tom Heath) and Maria (Kerrie-Anne Baker) plays out in plush, romantic fashion (big gestures, moving far apart before sweeping to each other, then out and away again), other interactions shirk such grand physicality.
A later scene between Varvara and Maria is beautiful in its simplicity, as is another with Sonya (Alisha Eddy) and Maria. The delivery softens, the overwrought language falls away leaving these lovely moments of engagement littered throughout.
Johnson and his cast understand that the play isn’t easy. Like climbing a rope, you need places to grab onto to help you along, and thankfully they provide the audience more than enough moments for them to gain purchase on.
Some actors made the mistake of equating volume with intimacy, so lines were unfortunately lost. In the end, however, it’s the overall quality of all the performances that really lifts Summerfolk from being an intellectual exercise, and instead be something far more fascinating and watchable.
Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda
Performance: Friday 24 March 2017 – 7.30pm
Image: Charlotte Fox and Luke Lennox feature in Summerfolk – photo by Ben Fon
Review: David Collins