Playwright Peter Flannery must have watched the outstanding 1994 Oscar-winning Russian movie Burnt by the Sun and noted how the action covers one day, how many of the scenes have a theatrical quality of dialogue as in a Chekhov or Gorky play, and how the central love story is consumed in the march of history.
Although best known for such television work as Our Friends in the North (derived from a stage play with the RSC), Blind Justice and The Devil’s Whore, Flannery’s earlier stage plays Savage Amusement(1978) and Singer(1989), both for the RSC, and the first new plays respectively in the Pit and the Swan, deliberately painted personal relationships on a wider political canvas.
Burnt by the Sun therefore proves a perfect project, stunningly realised not only in the adroitness and fidelity of the textual adaptation, but also in Howard Davies’s perfectly cast production, creating a Chekhovian sense of the end of an era with a Gorkyesque realism of change and upheaval. It’s like watching a brand new Russian masterpiece with modern political attitude.
The catalyst is Mitia (Rory Kinnear), returning after twelve years away on Stalin’s business in Europe. He was once Maroussia’s (Michelle Dockery, the Old Vic’s recent Eliza) lover, but she is now married to the much older Red Army general Kotov (Ciaran Hands). On a national holiday in 1936 to celebrate the launch of Stalin’s balloons and airships – and, as it happens, the reign of terror – Mitia’s homecoming throws a spanner in the works and sedate life on the dacha into turmoil.
Red banners and shadows creep into Vicki Mortimer’s magnificent revolving set of the veranda and interiors, while Mitia – a demonic piano-player who studied with Maroussia’s musician father – prepares the arrival of the six o’clock car by leading the company dance of grandmothers and other relatives. A swimming party segues into a gas mask alert on the beach and a comic can-can in the house with Mitia still wearing his mask at the keyboard like a sinister ant-eater.
Kinnear’s performance, his most remarkable to date at the National, a brilliant study in soul-selling deception and false bonhomie, is already a contender for next year’s awards, while Ciaran Hinds is wonderful as the peasant Bolshevik hero magnetised by Michelle Dockery’s sensual, willowy Maroussia and (on opening night) Holly Gibbs’ delightful little Nadia, though the role has been (sensibly, I feel) removed from its central location in the movie.
The evening is rich in lovely cameos, too, from Anna Carteret and Rowena Cooper as elderly relatives oblivious to the future, Duncan Bell as the ineffectual law professor, Tim McMullan as a vodka-swilling buffoon and Stephanie Jacob as the plump and virginal housemaid whose hypochondria is diagnosed as sexual deprivation and whose chance of happiness is brutally short-circuited in the tragic and violent final scenes.