As comparatively new kids on the indie block, Burning House are set to ignite with a Russian classic fuelled by a social conscience and mindfulness.
“Summerfolk is about three things that sit very close to my heart,” explains director Rob Johnson. “It encourages all of us to approach everybody, regardless of creed or class, with empathy. It challenges us to embrace every day as a gift that should be seized and used to the utmost, and it reminds us that we have a responsibility to those who come after us to take care of the world that we have.
“It’s also a fantastic challenge for an ensemble – it’s been an absolute delight piecing this tragicomedy together over the last two months with such a massive cast. We get to bring big, rare, precious works to the Melbourne stage and that’s something I take real pride in.”
The play was written by Russian Maxim Gorky (writer and political activist) in 1904 with focus on the Russian bourgeois social class and the changes occurring around them. You may be thinking that themes and ideals of this socio-political movement (Russia was undergoing a revolution at the time) may not hold a lot of relevance for us but think again.
“Gorky tells us that regardless of our politics we need to commit to them – to live fully and take control of our lives,” says Johnson. “He asks us to consider the relationship we have between ourselves as individuals and us as members of a society. He also reminds us that the world exists for others after we leave it – and we have a responsibility to maintain it to the best of our ability.”
“Right now we swelter through the hottest March ever recorded due to man-made climate change, and empathy and legacy do not seem to have a large place in the national dialogue at all. So it feels incredibly significant for us as contemporary Australians.”
“He’s got an interesting style – he was very much brought up in a naturalistic school. Chekhov was his personal mentor, so he writes incredibly detailed scenes, where one really feels we’re watching a slice of life. But he’s cheeky – it’s all a tiny bit too outrageous, and he draws attention to the fact we’re watching a play just a little bit more than expected. He conjures beautiful images in his language – constantly comparing people and their emotions to natural phenomena, always reminding us of where we sit in the world.”
One of Johnson’s favourite lines in the text comes from a watchman who observes the Summerfolk on their holiday when discussing their impermanence; “Like bubbles in a puddle in wet weather, they are.”
The work correlates easily to current political climates so, while Johnson is avoiding the explicit, he has moved the text towards today.
“Russia in 1904 was a world coming to terms with rapid globalisation, an increasingly loud dialogue regarding women’s rights, rapid technological improvement and a jingoistic dialogue within the nation. It does not feel far away at all,” he explains.
“We’ve placed the work in a world that will look recognisably Australian, or perhaps Western, with a few anachronistic touches here and there so the audience can really have a dialogue between today and the past of 113 years ago.”
Burning House was started by Johnson and two artistic collaborators, Jessica Doutch and James Lew. The group had completed their undergraduate degree at Monash University together and had been doing a few independent shows, but felt it was time to step things up a level. Thus Burning House was created – a company described as having a focus on bringing rare classical work to Melbourne in a contemporary context. Along the way, Johnson acknowledges, they been very lucky to be joined by a cadre of excellent artists as well.
Johnson’s pitch is simple: “You might never have a chance to see this play in Melbourne again. It is a beast – you’re not going to see it at MTC or Malthouse. It’s also an incredibly beautiful play about the hardship of living – the pain of love, growing up, falling in love, having children, growing old, losing wealth, navigating society. And it’s funny! It’s an evening of live music, play and food fights, all couched in the beautiful language of a five time nominee of a Nobel Prize in Literature. And it’s a beautiful reminder to go out and live life to the fullest!”
March 23 – 26