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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
CHILDREN OF THE SUN
at the National (Lyttelton)

BOURGEOIS ISOLATION
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

   Lucy Black and Geoffrey Streatfeild/ Ph: Richard Hubert Smith

It’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that when a play (or novel) by a well-established author falls under the radar and is rarely performed or read, the reason is that it’s probably not very good. Take the case of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun. Written in 1905 while its author was in jail for blaming the deaths of several protestors during the St. Petersburg massacre on the Tsar, it is rarely produced and, certainly in Britain and America, largely unknown.
 
Though not in the same class as Summerfolk or The Lower Depths, Gorky’s most famous play, it’s not without interest and, in a production of the quality accorded it by Director Howard Davies, Adapter Andrew Upton and Set Designer Bunny Christie – the trio responsible for the National’s Philistines (also by Gorky), Bulgakov’s The White Guard and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – it’s a curiosity well worth exploring.
 
Like The Cherry Orchard, which preceded it by one year, the play deals with a self-absorbed household of bourgeois intellectuals oblivious of the hardships and resentments of the unseen peasant class that populates a small Russian village.
 
The large house in which it all takes place is owned by Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), who has turned part of it into a fully equipped laboratory in which he spends most of his day obsessively working on a series of vague experiments whose grandiose purpose is to “create life in a test-tube and defeat death in a pipette.”
 
There is little communication between him and his attractive wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell, excellent), who, under his unseeing eyes, is being passionately pursued by Vageen (Gerald Kydd), an artist, while Protasov himself is the object of an unrequited obsession by Melaniya (Lucy Black), who admits she hasn’t read any of his books, but who licks them and rubs them all over her naked body.
 
The only member of the household aware of the political realities surrounding them is, ironically, Protasov’s mentally fragile sister Liza( Emma Lowndes), who, unlike her brother, is deeply concerned with the immediate present rather than some unattainable Utopian future. It is through Liza that Gorky’s message is conveyed, and the play which, quite literally, ends in  a bang, is a dire warning to the Russian bourgeoisie that a revolution is on its way.
 
Somehow Davies and his excellent cast manage to make Gorky’s characters almost believable. Not an easy task. For the first hour or so there is so much over-lapping dialogue and so little meaningful communication between the characters, I found it almost impossible to engage with any of their "tawdry romances and petty squabbles."
 
The second half, in which an outbreak of cholera is believed by many of the disgruntled townsfolk to be caused by pollutants resulting from Protasov’s experiments, is more dramatically involving. At last you see where the play is going and what the playwright is on about.
 
Upton’s adaptation, though somewhat anachronistic and too colloquial at times, succeeds in imparting an immediacy and a naturalistic feel to the text as well as some strained attempts at humor. The excellent ensemble cast goes far in mitigating the absurdity of most of the characters. Davies’ direction is an absolute triumph of style over content. And Christie’s wonderfully cluttered set, full of interesting nooks, crannies and details, ensures that the play is often better to look at than to listen to. Though no newly discovered gem, it’s the kind of play the National exists to do. And does so well.

 


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