Children of the Sun, director Howard Davies' latest production of a Russian classic at the National Theatre (following Philistines, The White Guard and The Cherry Orchard), opened to press in the Lyttelton last night (16 April 2013, previews from 9 April).
Maxim Gorky's darkly comic play, adapted by Andrew Upton, is set in Russia as the country rolls towards revolution. Only Liza (Emma Lowndes) suspects their impending doom, while her scientist brother Pavel Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild) cares for nothing but his experiments.
Children of the Sun runs in rep until 14 July 2013.
Davies and his adaptor, the Australian playwright Andrew Upton (working from a literal translation by Clare Barrett), wrench the text into something more brazen and anachronistic, modern in the sense of being slovenly and outspoken rather than interestingly pointed and fractured… You've only got to look at the RSC translation by Kitty Hunter-Blair and Jeremy Brooks to see how far off-target Upton goes in the name of liveliness and irreverence. And this affects the acting, which is expertly animated but curiously inauthentic… The intelligentsia have become dislocated from the humanity on their own doorstep, an analysis brutally dramatized in the incursion of Yegor the blacksmith's (Matthew Flynn) domestic reality and the insurgency on the street. And the messiness in everyone's lives makes you despair for the future in hindsight if this lot are forging it…For all the shortcomings in the text, the play's definitely worth seeing.
An explosive final scene – kaboom! – does not quite redeem this Gorky play set in pre-revolution Russia. For more than two hours we watch a group of self-regarding intellectuals amuse themselves in the house of scientist Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild)... After more than two hours we may ourselves be tempted to break down the gates and beat some sense into Mr Streatfeild’s implausibly unworldly character. So if that does finally occur, will we care?... Characters repeatedly talk over themselves. This aids the pace and seals the idea that Protasov’s house is an impossible place for him to get any work done. Yet I wearied of the extent to which it was done and I found myself wishing at times for a more contemplative tempo… The best scene is one in which these unlikeable fools break ten eggs on purpose. What a succinct expression of waste that is.
Emma Lowndes as Liza, Geoffrey Streatfield as Protasov & Lucy Black as Melaniya (photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
...as Howard Davies' rare and brilliantly mordant revival of Children of the Sun indelibly illustrates, Gorky chose to give scathing vent both to his exasperation with the self-involved ineffectuality of Russia's new middle class intelligentsia and to his nagging mistrust of the masses… Davies and his regular designer Bunny Christie once again show their mastery at animating the wide Lyttleton space and Andrew Upton's adaptation, with its calculated anachronisms keeps jolting us out of the complacency of galleried hindsight. With wonderfully well-paced and wrong-footing surges of futile energy amidst the nettled enervation, the production excels at orchestrating the bootless passion of Gorky's personnel who here talk across each and tread on each other's lines in the bitter comedy of the doctrinal altercations and misdirected amatory entanglements… A richly rewarding evening with a literally explosive climax.
It’s a passionate piece, albeit one that’s slow to ignite… Howard Davies' production conveys Gorky’s mixture of sanity and daring. At first it has a leisurely quality. Bunny Christie’s design is finely detailed yet suggests an expansive world of privilege, with Protasov’s laboratory sitting to one side - a hothouse, display case and potential Tardis. Although the characters’ interactions seem trivial for much of the first two acts, there is a note of volatility even in the most banal moments - a sense of something brewing... Upton has in the past been accused of introducing too much modern phrasing into these plays, and here it’s certainly a surprise to hear Protasov talk about “uni”. Yet he captures Gorky’s comedy and his jagged rhythms, and there’s real complexity in the characterisation.
Although the work is no masterpiece, Howard Davies' production and Andrew Upton's new translation prove it's a fascinating document of its time... We're offered a vivid portrait of a society in a state of prerevolutionary chaos, and that emerges strongly from Upton's free adaptation. I'm not crazy about his use of four-letter words to lend the play an urgent contemporaneity, and can't really believe that the bookishly secluded Liza would say "Shut up about my fucking nerves." But Upton heightens the Ibsenite notion that Protasov's chemicals are contaminating the water supply and reorders the events of the last act to bring the play to an explosive conclusion.
There’s a fierce crackle to Maxim Gorky’s 1905 play Children of the Sun, written while he was in prison after the first failed Russian revolution… From the start, characters tetchily talk over each other as they stalk round Bunny Christie’s beautifully detailed set… This is Upton and director Howard Davies’s latest joint foray into immersing National Theatre audiences in early 20th-century Russian drama. Together they stop Children of the Sun sliding into enervating high-minded debate by carefully calibrating the various examples of thwarted romance… It coalesces into a nuanced picture of lives and priorities in disarray, which, thanks to sensitive portrayals, means all involved claim a share of your sympathies when everything ends (literally) with a bang.