A group of educated, well-off and intelligent metropolitan types in the prime of their lives spend the summer in the country, where they stay in a dacha rented by the lawyer Bassov and combat the stultifying boredom of their petit bourgeois milieu with shallow conversations and copious amounts of alcohol. A writer comes to visit. Varvara, the wife of the host, feels attracted to him and gives the brushoff to the bon vivant Ryumin, who seems to have fallen for her. Suslov, a civil engineer who belongs to the group, drinks. Olga, a mother of several children, fluctuates between hatred for her inadequate husband, the doctor, and for herself, while Marya, another doctor, falls in love with the much younger Vlas. The one-time factory owner takes pleasure in observing… Underpinning all of this is the question of meaning in a self-referential, narcissistic and completely apolitical world — and this is what makes Gorky’s drama so relevant today.
The play was staged for the first time in St Petersburg on 10 November 1904. ‘The performance of Summerfolk was a scandal and I’m satisfied’, Gorky wrote, adding, ‘the play is not special, but I hit the target I was aiming for!’ The work was unveiled at a politically tense time, on the eve of the 1905 Revolution. Gorky, who took part in the workers’ strike in St Petersburg on 9 January 1905, was arrested, at which point his play was dropped, although in response to political pressure it was allowed to return to the stage in autumn of the same year. Numerous performances were used for political demonstrations — such as the loud calls made by audience members to overthrow the government — which is why Gorky’s Summerfolk was always read against a political backdrop, indicative of the social context in which it was created. According to Gorky, ‘science is the intellect of the world, art its soul’. Mateja Koležnik pursues this idea more generally in her work and does so once again in the context of Summerfolk, acknowledging that the notions of ‘society’ and ‘art’ have fundamentally altered since Gorky wrote his four-act drama in 1904. For instance, the writer who encounters the dacha’s summer residents is no longer translatable to the present day, as art has lost its place as an opposite pole to society. As a result, has society also lost its soul? And what does this mean for the theatre, which aims to be art? These questions were already on the horizon when the work was new.
Mateja Koležnik is one of the most significant Slovenian directors working today. At the beginning of her career, her work focussed on British and US authors of the 20th century, as well as contemporary authors writing in English and German. She began work as a director with productions at major theatres in the former Yugoslavia. Her debut in the German-speaking world followed in 2012 with Witold Gombrowicz’s Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy, a production that was then featured at several international festivals, including Maribor, where her staging of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman was also awarded the prize for best director in 2013. Mateja Koležnik’s work, which can now be seen throughout the German-speaking world, is characterized by detailed critical engagement with the text, an almost microsurgical dissection of the psychology running through each of the characters and production concepts with strongly aesthetic and formal ideas.
Translation: Sebastian Smallshaw