‘Children of The Sun’ at the National Theatre

2013-04-09 17.32.44Following in their recent tradition of revisiting works from late 19th and early 20th century Russia, the National Theatre are currently performing a new production of Maxim Gorky’s ‘Children of the Sun’, adding to the repertoire which has already included ‘The White Guard’, ‘Philistines’ and ‘The Cherry Orchard’.

The play, written in 1905 while Gorky was briefly imprisoned following his involvement in the failed revolution in that year, foreshadows the unrest still to come.  The ‘Children’ of the title are the turn of the 20th century leisured middle class, focussed on their own concerns of art and science, seeking ways to perfect the world, while entirely ignoring the poverty and building tension on the other side of the garden wall.

Protasov wants to spend his days immersed in his chemical experiments, convinced that he is on the verge of a great discovery that will improve mankind.  This focus lets him ignore everything else going on around him: the cholera epidemic in the village, his wife’s flirtation with a painter and the obsessive amorous attentions of a crazed widow.  They argue over culture and the universe, but it is Protasov’s sister Liza who feels the tension of the times, worrying  over the plight of the peasants and villagers, and who is prescribed drops for her nerves, so sure is she that something terrible is about to happen.

Blackly comedic in the first half, in the second the troubles of the village begin to encroach on the family and their surrounding coterie, when they learn of mob violence against the doctors in the town and fear that Protasov’s experiments have been poisoning the water supply.

The production at the Lyttleton makes a feature of the wall that divides the privileged family from the village outside; the stage is hidden behind a brick façade  daubed with illiterate slogans at the beginning, and as the play begins, it descends to reveal a house interior and courtyard beyond, in which all the action will take place.  Something about the aesthetic of set reminded me of the other recent productions of Russian plays, almost as if they have an established style, of interior with dining table and chairs, where all the light comes from outside.

I found it hard to relax and engage with the first half of the performance; in some scenes I even felt a little anxious over whether the actors were confident with their lines.  I find it hard to believe that they weren’t, so it must be a stylistic decision which it took me a while to stop worrying about.  After the interval it all worked better for me, perhaps because of all the set up in the first act, I did feel the drama and tragedy of the events that engulf the family and strip them of their delusions.

Although my response to the production was mixed, there are some highlights that I will remember: the best on stage explosion I’ve ever seen, and one which stunned the audience into complete silence, and the maddest response to being lent a book ‘I didn’t read your books, I licked them, I rubbed them all over my naked body and I licked them.’

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  1. Popular Posts from 2013 | Reading and Writing

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