At first glance, this Deutsches Theater production misreads Maxim Gorki’s Summerfolk. The play is deep and sprawling: a great Russian novel that spills onto an expansive stage, an endless summer garden party filled with sorrow and longing. But, whilst Daniela Löffner’s rigid aesthetic is initially testing, it is that same aesthetic that elevates her production later on, drawing out the taste of bitter inadequacy and unfulfilled potential that is Summerfolk’s beating heart.
Claudia Rohner’s set is a faded copper cage: a static interior closed-off from the world outside. The 15-strong ensemble, dressed prim but contemporary by Eva Martin, sit silent against the three walls, engaged yet passive watching the scenes unfold before them. The Deutsches audience (similarly prim but contemporary) occupy the fourth: we are equally engaged and, crucially, equally passive.
The performances are mainly strong, especially after the opening heightened tone gives way to a more appropriate gentle naturalism. And, if Gorky’s exquisite characterisations are sometimes a little exaggerated, at least it grants us an astonishing ability to distinguish between each of the large cast, and their complex interrelations, with considerable ease.
Confined to the one room, and thus necessarily inward looking, the production does better at love than politics. Regine Zimmermann is excellent as an older lover unable to let herself go, whilst her daughter, Maike Knirsch, is utterly compelling as the youngster who sees through them all. Alexander Khuon gives a liberated performance as Bassov, the nihilistic lawyer, that reminded me of Tobias Menzies’s doctor in Rob Icke’s Uncle Vanya: a surface indifference that does little to hide the deep sorrow underneath.
It’s a long play and, towards its close, we are deeply invested in each of these fifteen lives. Matthias Erhard’s music, which improves considerably as the play progresses, builds to a swelling pathos with Bernd Stempel on the guitar. And if Christoph Franken Chekhovian fudged suicide is bizarrely anti-climatic, well, maybe that’s the point.
For all its craft, however, Löffner misreads the political intensity of Gorky’s play. Written (in 1904) in the crisis conditions that preceded the Russian Revolutions, Summerfolk could be a deeply prescient piece today. But Löffner and David Heiligers' adaptation cuts Gorky’s radical intervention of the amateur actors (the main invocation of a working class voice) and deliberately blurs the plays politics: it’s a modern production in image alone. This lack of authorial intent lends a strange frame to the play’s gender politics and, as the lights fade on an undoubtedly impressive and sorrowful production, you can’t help feeling that the failure to capture Gorky’s radicalism is a regrettable missed opportunity.