Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Anthony Biggs: The Last Ones

By | Published on Wednesday 31 May 2017

The latest show in artistic director Anthony Biggs’ final season at Jermyn Street Theatre is a production of Maxim Gorky’s ‘The Last Ones’, directed by the AD himself.
To find out more about the play, and what to expect from Biggs in the future, I organised a quick chat.

CM: Most will be aware of the breadth and importance of his oeuvre, but for anyone that isn’t, can you start by telling us a bit about Maxim Gorky and the historical context of his work?
AB: Gorky grew up in poverty and extreme hardship in Russia at a time when serfdom was only just starting to be abolished. He attempted suicide twice as a teenager, before deciding he wanted an education. He walked hundreds of miles to Kazan (where ‘The Last Ones’ is set) to enrol at the university but was refused entry. Undeterred, he began writing and his first successful play was ‘The Lower Depths’ which propelled him to fame. His plays were performed all over Europe and the US. He had a complicated relationship with Lenin and the Bolshevics, and spent many years in self-imposed exile in Capri.

CM: What’s the plot of ‘The Last Ones’, and who are the central characters?
AB: Two years after the first revolution of 1905, as Russia descended into chaos, a corrupt ex-police chief and his family attempt to bribe their way back to power. His wife Sonya has borne his womanising and gambling for years, but now the children are beginning to realise who their father really is. The revolutionary fervour that has gripped the nation has now taken hold in the family and will soon erupt into outright rebellion.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
AB: Are children responsible for the sins of their parents? What does it mean to be a mother? What does truth mean in a ‘fake-news’ world?

CM: Why were you keen to stage a production of this particular play?
AB: I spend a lot of time rooting around in libraries looking for old plays. Many are unsuitable because they are no longer relevant or have a cast of 25. Ever so often I find one that feels utterly contemporary. Much of the story and dialogue of ‘The Last Ones’ feels like it could be happening now. I wonder whether Donald Trump has had any uncomfortable conversations with his children about his past.

CM: How do you think it will resonate with contemporary audiences?
AB: We all know dysfunctional families and the damage it causes the next generation. We’ve seen revolutions around the world (particularly the Arab Spring) where, once the euphoria is over, the old guard return to power, just with different titles. And we are witnessing outrageous and unfettered corruption in our own political and business worlds. We seem savvy enough to know we are being lied to and manipulated, but that doesn’t stop us consuming ‘fake news’ does it?

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast?
AB: Daragh O’Malley is best known for ITV’s ‘Sharpe’ though he’s also a very well known theatre actor. Louise Gold made her name as a puppeteer with ‘The Muppets’ and ‘Spitting Image’ before establishing herself as a major classical and musical theatre actress with seasons at the RSC and in the West End. There is a cast of twelve, six men and six women which is quite unusual for classic plays.

CM: This is part of your final season as artistic director at Jermyn Street. What were your aims when planning it, and what do we still have to look forward to?
AB: I wanted to make sure my final season represented the eclectic work I’ve wanted to stage at JST. So we’ve had the UK Premiere of Sondheim’s ‘The Frogs’, a real crowd-pleaser that sold out even before it opened. We’ve had the world premiere of Stephen Unwin’s debut play ‘All Our Children’, about the Nazi campaign against the disabled. It’s such an important story especially at a time when we are hearing politicians again talk about a person’s worth to society in terms of their ability to make money. After ‘The Last Ones’ we finish with a wonderful comedy – ‘Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain’, perfect fare for the summer.

CM: What would you say the highlights of your five years at Jermyn Street have been?
AB: There have been lots of highlights. I was very proud to program Dry Land and A Level Playing Field, both companies made of young people with important stories to tell. Personally I have loved directing the rarely performed plays – John Van Druten’s ‘Flowers of the Forest’, Eugene O’Neil’s ‘The First Man’ and Lillian Hellman’s ‘The Autumn Garden’. I’m also really excited that Lee Tannen’s ‘I Loved Lucy’, which I directed last year, is transferring to the West End’s Arts Theatre this July.

CM: What’s next for you? Where are you moving on to from here?
AB: After I finish ‘The Last Ones’ I go straight into rehearsal for ‘I Loved Lucy’. We have a new actor, Broadway star Matthew Scott, joining the wonderful Sandra Dickinson who is returning as Lucille Ball. Then in September I join The Playground Theatre in West London as co-artistic director. We are planning to present exciting, risk-taking theatre with a really international feel.

‘The Last Ones’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre from 7 Jun-1 Jul, see the venue website here for all the details.