Theatre: Spotlight on corruption as society falls apart

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: June 21, 2017 Last modified: June 21, 2017

The Last Ones

Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Written just three years after the Russian revolution of 1905, and immediately  banned by the authorities because of the unsparing spotlight it shone on corruption and police brutality, Maxim Gorky’s The Last Ones depicts a dysfunctional middle-class family as a metaphor for a society that is quickly coming apart at the seams.

Tyrannical patriach Ivan Kolomiitsev is in line for a new position as a top cop but his job offer is dependent on paying a hefty bribe. In order to borrow the money he needs from his brother, Ivan must admit to his role in the brutal death of more than one suspected criminal. However any admission of involvement jeopardises the very job he desires, and on which his family’s financial security depends. Since the revolution things have been sliding at an alarming rate and Ivan’s new position is all that stands between them and beggary.

The threat of violence hangs heavy in the air as Ivan – the excellent Daragh O’Malley makes an utterly believable sociopath – confronts his older and more liberally-minded brother (Tim Woodward) in tones that range from bullying rage to impotent supplication. Whoever cast O’Malley and Woodward as brothers deserves credit for their remarkable perspicacity. Not only do they share a similar physical bearing, but on more than one occasion I had to look up from my notes to see exactly which actor was speaking, such are the familiarities they share.

Woodward’s subtlely communicated control in the face of O’Malley’s distorted exhortations is particularly impressive. In fact Woodward’s presence on stage is as reassuring as it is a reminder of what a fine actor he is.

If the first half of this play belongs to the men in the family, the second half is all about the women. It is only now that the family’s faultlines become clearer. As the elderly family-retained nurse (the deeply sympathetic Maroussia Frank) seeks shelter from the sound and fury, the younger family members lay the blame for their dilemmas firmly at the feet of the older generation. A satisfyingly apposite allegory, given recent events at home.

The anarchic dissolution that is taking place unseen, outside, is communicated through intimations of an incestuous relationship between Ivan and his married daughter, whom he gropes grotesquely, and his paternity of a crippled child  Lyubov, (Annabel Smith) whose deformity seems to be a physical embodiment of Ivan’s innate corruptness. Despite her physical frailties Lyubov’s character and fierce, questioning intelligence only serves to illuminate the prevailing murk.

In fact, Ivan’s venality is perhaps a short-cut too far. Long before his ultimate demise you’ve stopped caring. Far more compelling is the fate of the others family members, Woodward’s Iakov and his sister-in-law Sonya, (Louise Gold) who previously sought solace in a love-affair, Ivan’s daughters Nadia (coincidentally played by Woodward’s sister Emily) and the youngest (and slightly self-obsessed) Vera (Kirsten Obank, pictured with Omar Barhoud). Look out too for the excellent young actor Andrew Still, who, as son Peter, not only offers the promise of redemption but also of a long and substantial career in the theatre.

The Last Ones certainly isn’t a barrel of laughs, but outgoing artistic director of the Jermyn Street Theatre Anthony Biggs succeeds in showing just how quickly things can fall apart once disintegration sets in, and that should worry anyone concerned with our present political situation.

The Last Ones is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until July1.

About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist