By Maria Dunne


Maxim Gorky’s last play Summerfolk was adapted into a modern retelling in this Burning House production. The adaption was strong, tense and struck with Russian black humour. Characters like Dvoetochie slid onto the modern setting effortlessly, particularly as David Meadows portrayed him with such unequivocal brashness and a strong love for rock.


Tom Heath’s Vlass was another standout in this production. His character seems like an outsider in some ways as he pushes the status quo with his wit and his disregard for convention. Heath’s lively physicality and shrewd words in his rendition of Vlass made his character’s fate all the more effective.


The production’s use of space was impressive. There were two acting spaces: a more traditional proscenium arch stage and a stage on the floor of the theatre. In doing this, director Robert Johnson could slowly bring out the actors closer to the audience to establish a closer connection.


The first act achieved this. The actors headed to the floor and professed their individual side stories respectively; Vlass and Maria’s foolish love and Suslov and Yulia’s hatred amassed so intensively at this point.


It was then that I wondered, why hadn’t Summerfolk received as great a resurgence as other plays? It seemingly had all the ingredients for a good play. Yet, the second act was a loss.


Dudakov (Nicholas Rijs) states that “no one is going to die”: a statement normally expected to emphasise dramatic irony in Russian literature. It seemed to be Gorky’s last Russian joke before his passing. But the lack of immediate danger in this play made it difficult to relate to the apparent depraved bourgeoisie. Although Summerfolk attempted to attack the first world problems of the time, it feels as if the playwright is lecturing you rather than showing you. The tension that the play had been building up was broken – by arduous talk of problems.


Summerfolk Production Still 4


Pastobaika conjectures, “plays are all the same”: some are happy, some are sad, and this play seemed to be playing on that fact. However, as Gorky built his political message within that, Johnson let it fall flat. The repetition of all the characters’ ‘woe is me’ expressions at first seemed a tool for the second act to build and play with, yet it hadn’t lived to its expectation.


The only refuge seemed to be when Varvara finally called them out on their selfishness. This passive, emotionless character was now starting to develop. Charlotte Fox was able to show a breaking point for Varvara with strong gestures and pleads to her world to be better.


Another disappointing aspect was Ryumin’s attempted suicide. Although this production of Summerfolk did add an extra half an hour to the supposed three-hour long show, this act was seen as a passive thing – off stage, unheard and under control. Perhaps it would have been more effective if the play had emphasized more of these moments.


The ending of Summerfolk was puzzling. For something set in the modern day, it’s strange to see people scourging for scraps on the kitchen table look like medieval peasants. These characters appeared out of the blue, attempting to give us deeper thoughts on other classes in our society. However, as there was no indication earlier on this being the purpose of the play, it seemed to be an afterthought by Robert Johnson on what this play’s meaning is.


Overall, this was a play that was reasonably engaging and fun, but lacked the tenacity in its themes to reflect on what Summerfolk truly means.




Maria Dunne is a writer from North Coburg. Before writing for the Northsider she wrote freelance for the Big Issue and Buzzcuts.



Note: The reviewer attended a performance on 24 March. Burning House’s Summerfolk ended its limited run on 26 March.

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