The National’s new production of Chekhov contemporary Maxim Gorky’s Children Of The Sun is expertly acted and artfully updated. It’s a shame the play hasn’t quite stood the test of time
CHILDREN OF THE SUN
Maxim Gorky was a socialist, activist and playwright. A friend of Chekhov, though never his artistic equal, Gorky engaged with Russian politics more directly than the elder playwright ever cared to. Children of the Sun, which the National have adapted with a lavishness that might have sickened Gorky, is the playwright’s sternest warning of things to come for the Russian bourgeoisie.
It begins with an act of failed alchemy. Privileged scientist Prosatov (a very competent Geoffrey Streatfield) is too wrapped up in his experiments to notice either the cracks in his intellectual middle class family, or the impending revolution outside his front door. When there is an apparent cholera outbreak, the peasants blame the fumes coming from his experiments.
One of the wonderful things about Andrew Upton’s new version of the play is how effortlessly it moves between these two worlds. While the universe of the ruling intelligentsia is cluttered with all manner of modern appliances – galoshes, test tubes and neckties – the underclass of the play are depicted in prescient communist chic: dungarees and flat caps, bearing hammers and wrenches. The revolution may be imminent and intimidating, but it’s been carefully branded.
Unfortunately the play itself isn’t so wonderful. As you might expect from a piece of prison literature (Gorky was incarcerated for anti-government behaviour) that predicts the demise of the ruling class, Children of the Sun is a heavy handed affair.
It’s a shame, as Upton’s production does its utmost to give the play a 21st century sheen. The performances are top dollar, with Paul Higgins excelling as a morose vet with a taste for quoting Hamlet, and Gerald Kyd providing amusement via his turn as a talentless and lovelorn artist. We are invited to condemn these characters, but also to pity their petty squabbles and affections – first world problems, we are justifiably reminded, are still problems.
The translation too, is faultless: modern idiom is used, but not prostituted, and the demarcations between accents – upper class characters speak in RP English, others with regional brogues – are finely executed.
But for all the quality of the production, it’s the quality of the play itself that is suspect. Political propaganda – even in opposition to the status quo – doesn’t make for great drama.