Review: Children of the Sun

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 17 April 2013 in Culture
Anoosh Chakelian goes hot and cold on the National's new version of Maxim Gorky's play originally written amid the rumblings towards revolution

In many ways, Andrew Upton’s resurrection of Russian playwright Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun is a classic turn of the century Russian play. Bourgeois philosophising, angsty peripheral labourers, a household crumbling in crisis – all brought to life in words around a kitchen table. With the inevitable nearby samovar bubbling like the socio-economic norms outside the walls – which are of course slathered in anguished Cyrillic graffiti.

There are all the Chekhovian trappings of helplessness, nihilistic flippancy and bickering about tea, in equal measure, rendering obsessive scientist and master of the town Protasov’s household a tinderbox of middle-class terror, guilt and derision at the rumblings of the imminent 1905 revolution.

Gorky, a pseudonym meaning ‘bitter’, wrote the play from a prison cell months before this turbulent year of abortive uprisings. His script, adapted by playwright Upton, who was behind the National’s successful Philistines (another Gorky play) of 2007, echoes the claustrophobia and conflicted feelings towards unrest felt by the incarcerated creative, who would go on to have a stormy relationship with Stalin.

Based in a bright, airy estate – the set is all wooden beams and rustic brick – closed off from a town heaving with discontented workers battling a cholera outbreak, the production focuses on Protasov's ideas and failings. A pathetic and preoccupied character, played with lashings of nonplussed quavering by Geoffrey Streatfeild, like a pigeon with a doctorate.

“I need to go and warm my yeast”, he blinks innocuously, bustling back into his lab, where he toils night and day on his “quest for sense” while the world crumbles around his sulphurous ivory tower.

The increasingly incensed townsfolk believe his chemicals leaking into the water supply are “boiling up” the cholera and killing the masses. They don’t have time to wait for the 200 years of scientific discovery towards life’s meaning – and inventing glass bottles and oak tree-based waistcoats – of which Protasov celebrates being a pioneer. The often discussed “sun” of enlightenment blinds him.

Yet his almost pantomime oblivion (‘the murderous revolutionaries are BEHIND you!’ you feel like screaming), and the farcical way in which a handful of other key characters are played really jars with the weighty subjects discussed and nuanced misery portrayed by a few of the other actors.

For example, the beautifully ludicrous neurosis of Melaniya, who harbours an unrequited love for the scientist, is played with madcap abandon by Lucy Black – “My eggs are yours”, she whimpers, and then later the delicious line, “I didn’t read your books. I licked them. I rubbed them all over my naked body and licked them.”

This clashes with the subtle melancholia of troubled Liza, Protasov’s sister, played by a delicately distressed Emma Lowndes, who seems to be the only character with a social conscience. She cradles a newspaper throughout that looks suspiciously like the Guardian, lamenting the pain of the poor, and decries the “dark and putrid” behaviour of her household in a bizarre scene where they all whoop and throw eggs at each other, the floor, the walls.

It is impossible to see the blustering Protasov as a tragic hero whose hubris brings down society, himself, and his loved ones with it. Equally the odious, strutting artist Vageen (Gerald Kyd) -  “it’s faaabulous”, he occasionally drawls – is an unlikely amorous companion of Protasov’s stoic wife, Yelena (Justine Mitchell).

More likely as a flawed hero is the chemist’s best friend, Boris – affably intense, romantically cynical - whose thirsty unrequited passion for Liza (everyone’s love is unreturned in this play) drives him to hollow jokes and touching hopelessness. He is played subtly by Paul Higgins.

Neither the refined nor the melodramatic way to play these characters is wrong, or any less entertaining, it’s just they belong in different plays. Unfortunately the discord ends up between the actors, rather than the personae they portray.

Tags: Andrew Upton, Children of the Sun, Maxim Gorky, The National Theatre

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