In an aquarium or a zoo we can see animals behind glass, in a theatre people, except that the wall separating the audience from the actors is imaginary. In modern zoos the animals are housed in artificial environments, which are supposed to resemble their natural habitat, but in the end they are all boxes. This undeniable fact is brought out perfectly by Laurie Anderson in a song about John Lilly, the man who claims he can talk to dolphins. One day he was swimming in an aquarium and a whale kept asking him the same question, telepathically, over and over again "do all oceans have walls?"
In By Gorki by Alvis Hermanis and New Riga Theatre the actors spend most of their time inside a plexiglass container. Inside we can make out a living room with some haphazard furniture, a kitchen and in the background a bedroom and a fitness room. On top of the container a video screen shows rehearsal footage and testimonies from the actors, another screen shows live footage from inside the container while a third screen shows abstract figures.
It's Big Brother all over again indeed, with one minor but crucial difference: in Big Brother, the walls are closed, in By Gorki they are transparent. Big Brother creates the illusion of a natural habitat. By Gorki appears more like a zoo with human inhabitants or like a social experiment for which a natural habitat has been recreated in a laboratory. Glass walls are a very rich metaphor, Walter Benjamin has written extensively about their significance in his Arcades Project, and there is a lot more that one could read into this seemingly simple decision to have the walls of the house made transparent. I am also thinking of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison here.
By Gorki is loosely based on The Lower Depths, a play by Maxim Gorky, published in 1902, about a dozen or so dropouts who find themselves together in an underground lodging house. It is essentially plotless and concentrates on the characters, each of whom tries to keep up appearances in front of the others.
Alvis Hermanis must have realized that to render the sense of emptiness and loss that permeates the play, he didn't have to faithfully reproduce the text. All he had to do was to put a seemingly random group of people together in a room. This in itself creates a form of tension. Who are these people and what brought them here? As long as the actors understand the atmosphere of the text they can basically do whatever. And this is indeed what they do.
Most of the time the actors, 16 in total, just hang around. They eat, they drink, they sit and they talk. They play games, listen to music and tease each other. Occasionally some of the actors kill time by playing excerpts from The Lower Depths. There are moments of love and tenderness and outbursts of uncontrolled rage. A man plays football with a plastic bag until another man burns it with a gas spray. He sits down on one of the plastic chairs, but as he leans backwards the chair collapses. He flies into a blind rage and starts smashing the chair. Stoically the others look on until he is finished. When the chair has been reduced to pieces the man gets out a broom and sweeps the room.
In a previous scene a man and a woman got into a fight. "You should never intervene in a fight", one of the other actors remarks, "just wait until they get tired". Most of the action is futile, such as the girl who for several minutes climbs on top and underneath a table. If you want to you can see it as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life, but don't feel obliged. Some of the jokes the characters play on each another are pretty mean, such as when a girl attaches a rope with empty cans and bottles to another woman's skirt or when another woman is almost assaulted. This is what it must be like in a room full of dropouts and junkies. Isn't it good to know they are behind glass?
Occasionally, some of the actors step outside of the container to sit on one of the chairs to the right of the stage. They smoke a cigarette, read a magazine and talk about life and death and other trivia. Sometimes one of them directly addresses the audience, but he or she could also pretend to address an audience, like the Actor, a character from the original play by Maxim Gorki.
The plexiglass box has the added effect of dividing the stage into multiple zones, thus creating a strong sense of depth. There's always something happening somewhere on stage or on video. Unfortunately since I tend to concentrate on the events on stage this meant that I missed out on some of the surtitles. My Latvian is no longer what it used to be.
Both the opening and the final scene are as simple as they are effective. Here I shall only give away the opening scene. The fluorescent lights in the container switch on and the actors enter, taking their seats inside the living room and the kitchen. At the same time the three screens start transmitting video footage. As you try to take in all the information, suddenly a garbage bin falls. It is then that you notice that some of the furniture is moving and is attached to a web of ropes controlled by the actor or actors. It is a fascinating scene because so much is happening at once.
Alvis Hermanis has obviously been inspired by the work of Frank Castorf, at least in this production, but this is actually of little or no interest. By Gorki is fascinating theatre. It is at once moving, funny and relevant. When the actors came on stage to take a bow I realized two hours had passed. It didn't seem like it. I was captivated from beginning to end.