Children of the Sun, National Theatre, London – review

We may feel we know pre-revolutionary Russia from Chekhov’s great quartet of plays. But here is Gorky, writing a year after The Cherry Orchard, and while the backdrop is the same, the flavour is very different. In Children of the Sun, the coming revolution is even more keenly felt, as rioting crowds break down the gates. Gorky wrote it in prison during the abortive revolution of 1905, and there’s an edge of raw exasperation to his darkly comic depiction of the blinkered middle classes. We’re not among the aristocracy here, but with the cultured intelligentsia, who can’t or won’t grasp the enormity of the social inequality around them.

Central to the action here is Pavel Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), an earnest, idealistic scientist who hides away in his laboratory. His mind is set on scientific progress, but he fails to notice the unrest either in the town or in his own household. His sister, Liza (Emma Lowndes), a bookish, fragile young woman senses impending disaster almost physically, but her warnings are dismissed by the assembled company. Clustered around this duo are sundry hangers-on: the pompous artist chasing Pavel’s neglected, intelligent wife (Justine Mitchell); the half-crazed widow (Lucy Black) slavishly besotted with Pavel; the sardonic, melancholic local vet (excellent Paul Higgins) in love with Liza. Even those who do sense the problems don’t know what to do: they look like people heading for the rapids in a barrel.

Gorky’s observation is salty, sharp and shrewd: if this lot seem bonkers and fatally self-absorbed, the raging crowds are superstitious and easily led. Trouble beckons. Translator Andrew Upton and director Howard Davies, in the latest of a fruitful series of Russian classics, emphasise the volatility in the text, with characters swearing and talking over one another. This gives the piece a raw vigour and authenticity, though we don’t need some of the anachronisms to feel the resonances with our own troubled times.

And for all Upton and Davies’s work, the fine comic timing of the cast and the gorgeous detail of Bunny Christie’s set, the first two acts feel pretty heavy-going. Gorky doesn’t seem here to have Chekhov’s touch for making inertia dramatically lively.

This beautifully textured and acted production can’t quite overcome the play’s flaws, then. But it vividly conveys the playwright’s urgent despair, nowhere better than in the drama’s two great symbolic climaxes: the first, when the characters carelessly destroy a basket of fresh eggs; the second, when Pavel’s dreams literally go up in smoke.

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