Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Theatre review: Children of the Sun

Howard Davies directing a Russian play has become a bit of an annual National Theatre tradition, often in a translation by Andrew Upton. This year they tackle Maxim Gorky, and his 1905 look at young intellectuals in a safe bubble that won't last forever, Children of the Sun. Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is head of a family that's owned much of their small town for decades - although their finances aren't quite what they used to be, perhaps in part due to Protasov's occupation: A scientist, he spends his days in a home laboratory doing chemical experiments that seem to require constant supplies. His sister Liza (Emma Lowndes,) who suffers from an unspecified illness, is regularly rejecting the advances of family friend and local vet Boris (Paul Higgins.) His wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell) is spending all her time with artist Vageen (Gerald Kyd.) And Protasov himself is the unwilling target of romantic advances from Boris' sister Melaniya (Lucy Black.)

The family and friends debate the meaning of the universe but the town around them is a powder-keg: On top of the social inequalities a cholera epidemic may be being exacerbated by chemicals from Protasov's work, and their dissatisfaction could tip over into violence at any time. Davies' production opens with a servant trying to mend the broken gate - keeping the townspeople out of the grounds could prove to be of crucial importance.

The production is of the kind of quality we've come to expect from these annual trips to Russia, with Bunny Christie's gorgeous set not hiding any of the showstopping surprises we've seen in the past, but accommodating a couple of impressive special effects as the play draws to a close. And the cast do great work; Streatfeild incorporates enough mad scientist into his performance to avoid making the detached Protasov entirely unsympathetic, while Black is moving as the smitten Melaniya whose love for the chemist is openly mocked. The second act culminates in the middle-class friends smashing perfectly good eggs for fun, in open contempt of Melaniya who brought them as a gift, and unthinking disregard for the starving people roaming the countryside. We also get a glimpse of the other side of things as the family's maid (Florence Hall) coldly plans her marriage prospects based on who'll give her the most financial security.

But I couldn't quite decide how much I liked the play itself. There's certainly some beautiful moments, like Streatfeild's speech about individuals' place in the universe from which the play gets its title, and whose truth won't make it any easier to cope with the catastrophes about to face them. But the first two acts do lumber a bit as the characters philosophize. After the interval both the comedy and the drama kick up a notch, and the group find their internal problems may have deadly consequences even before the townspeople take up arms. Certainly there's a lot that's very good here, but I wasn't entirely sucked into the story or the characters.

Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky in a version by Andrew Upton is booking in repertory until the 14th of July at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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