Review: Summerfolk

4 years ago
Aidan Johnson

A poignant play for such a troubled era. Summerfolk, written by Maxim Gorky (as a tribute to Anton Chekov) and performed by Burning House Productions (directed by Robert Johnson) in St Kilda is something I think ought to be seen by as many people as possible. Strong production, acting, and interpretation of the writing make this play thoroughly enjoyable. Between anger, tears of mirth, and despair, the play will bring you along on an emotional journey unlike any other. And if you don’t come out feeling something, then you obviously weren’t watching.

Gorky’s writing manages to be both witty and dramatic in equal measure. The prose is fast paced, yet builds up successfully to cover the strong emotional roller-coaster that makes an effective character-driven story. It was interesting to see nice little “Australian” touches added to the dialogue – aside from the swearing, there were references (subtle ones) to modern life that wouldn’t have worked in a late Imperial Russian setting, right down to the bawdy Hawaiian shirts, hipster mustache on a writer, and the swimwear. That being said, sometimes it was a little strange having modern settings with Russian names.

The cast was enormous – 17 members strong. While it was rare to see all the cast onstage, it made for an intense show when they were. And yet, even when all the cast were around, the ebb and flows of the conversation were brilliantly balanced. Although there were one or two line slip-ups, they were so small they were barely noticeable, and the conversation onstage flowed effortlessly. However, with a cast that big, there were always going to be discrepancies in the acting. Although it was all good, some of the actors really stood out from the crowd. What also contributed to this was the fact that, at least initially, the male voices were overpowering – you could hardly hear the early character development of the early women leads because of their quiet voices. Fortunately by the end of the play this was remedied.

Regardless, the actors portray their characters very well. From the epicurean excess of Sergei Bassoff and Sussloff, through to the clownish antics of Basov, and back to the despairing yet morally upright Varvara (with a myriad of other characters in between), all the actors conveyed effectively the emotions of everyone involved. And considering all the characters had multiple levels (with the exception of some of the side characters, and arguably Bassoff), this required quite a level of skill. The side-eyes and silent appearances on-stage also made for some great humour.

This play really hits home for children of the middle classes with artistic aspirations or a lack of direction. The play deals heavily with the epicurean hedonism of a generation that is obsessed with petty “drivel” and boozing, often ignoring the impact that their disgraceful and morally bankrupt behaviour has on those around them. Varvara has an apt point when she declares “we have no reason to moan” – something when upon reflection is an apt observation of this generation. This is not a partisan attack either, since whinging and moaning is something that is common to all sides of politics.

But it is the despair, anomie, and ennui of those who really don’t have much to complain about that this play takes fire at. Those people who just talk and engage in idleness, hedonism, scandal, pretentiousness, and self-destructive behaviours just to fill the vacuous empty materialism of their lives.

That is not to say hedonism or the characters that represent it are constantly ridiculed. On the contrary, at the end of the play, there is an impassioned defence of the morally bankrupt behaviour of some of the decadent characters, which is understandable. However, the morality of the play, despite the morally ambiguous and complex characters, certainly shines through, especially at the end when the humour is stripped away.

Overall, a solid performance. Definitely check this play out. But do so quickly, as there are a limited number of performances.


Summerfolk is on at Theatre Works in St Kilda from 23 – 26 March at 7:30pm. Tickets range between $20 – $28 and are available online at   

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