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Review Round-up: Is Flannery's Sun a Hot Ticket?

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Peter Flannery's new play Burnt by the Sun, adapted from the screenplay for the Oscar-winning 1994 Russian film, opened to critics at the NT Lyttelton last night (3 March 2009, previews from 24 February), where it continues in rep until 21 May 2009 (See Today's 1st Night Photos).

Set over the course of a single day in a Russian dacha in 1936, it centres on Colonel Kotov (Ciaran Hinds), decorated hero of the Russian Revolution, who’s spending an idyllic summer in the country with his beloved young wife and family. But one sunny morning in 1936, his wife’s former lover Mitia (Rory Kinnear) returns from a long and unexplained absence. Amidst a tangle of sexual jealousy, retribution and remorseless political backstabbing, Kotov feels the full, horrifying reach of Stalin’s rule.

Directed by Howard Davies (who also helmed David Hare's Gethsemane at the NT recently), the cast also features Michelle Dockery, Anna Carteret, Tim McMullan, Stephanie Jacob and Duncan Bell - design is by Vicki Mortimer.

Critics were aptly warm in their reactions to Burnt by the Sun - a raft of four and five star ratings adorning today's broadsheets. Among the loftier acclamations were those of Whatsonstage.com's own Michael Coveney who proclaimed the evening was “like watching a brand new Russian masterpiece with modern political attitude”. He, like most of his critical colleagues, was also quick to praise Davies' “perfectly cast” production – with principals Kinnear, Hinds and Dockery mopping up plenty of superlatives between them. The Oklahoma house-set of August: Osage County may have been replaced on the Lyttelton stage by a Russian dacha, but Burnt by the Sun looks set to be just as hot.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “Burnt by the Sun ... proves a perfect project, stunningly realised not only in the adroitness and fidelity of the textual adaptation, but also in Howard Davies’ 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 … 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.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “Even if Peter Flannery's adaptation ... can't quite match the original and one misses crucial scenes, I'd still recommend the show for two reasons: the political power of the narrative and the ensemble grace of Howard Davies' fine production … Davies' production, set in an and around Vicki Mortimer's revolving summerhouse, is visually beautiful and strikingly acted. Ciaran Hinds' Kotov, looking oddly like Stalin himself, may be a touch on the dour side but exudes a burly, dangerous authority. Rory Kinnear brilliantly conveys Mitia's mix of vindictiveness and self-hatred, Michelle Dockery's Maroussia has a luminous, tragic beauty.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “The acting is consistently fine, starting with Michelle Dockery as a Maroussia suppressing the 'free spirit' attributed to her by Kinnear’s Mitia, who himself begins as everybody’s jokey friend yet is soon subtly suggesting the unease, the bitterness, the nihilism inside. And Hinds is very much the military philistine: effortlessly commanding, gruffly self-assured and, as his wife says, maybe 'the hardest man on the planet' … The result is quite a lesson in the perils of complacency ... 'Hello, new life', cried Trofimov as he exited from The Cherry Orchard in 1904. Well, here’s that new life in all its paranoia and cruelty.”
  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “The extraordinary fascination of Burnt by the Sun, skilfully adapted for the stage by Peter Flannery ... lies in the way it exploits a Chekhovian milieu and fills it with people who behave as if lost in the life of a 19th century estate … As in an Ibsen play, the present catastrophe springs directly from revelations of secrets and betrayals in the past - the political and personal entwined, sexual desire the unacknowledged goad ... Kinnear’s vehement Mitia does not quite bear enough of an anguished or despairing soul to Michelle Dockery’s movingly woe-begone Maroussia, who learns why he vanished from her life.”
  • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars) - “Howard Davies’ production, on Vicki Mortimer’s lovingly constructed house set … is impeccably performed by its large cast. Hinds, in particular, is a magnet of coarse, peasant charisma in this house of trilling dilettantes, reaching heights of dignity and depths of despair as the action unfolds. Kinnear … is on exuberant form, with occasional flashes of self-centred petulance to illuminate Mitia’s pain, although he does not quite convince as the ruthless double-dealer he turns out to be. There are some memorable moments  ... but the play spends too much time being languidly Chekhovian and too little exploring the themes of betrayal and political implosion … Just as Kotov doesn’t anticipate his doom until it’s far too late, the piece itself is frustratingly slow to hot up.”  

    - by Theo Bosanquet

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