Review: Children of the Sun, National Theatre

“We are tiny, tiny fragments of miniscule cogs in a grand and fabulously random collision”

If it ain’t broke… Adaptor Andrew Upton, director Howard Davies and designer Bunny Christie have had considerable success with previous Russian epics Philistines and The White Guard and so they’ve reunited once again, this time to breathe new life in Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, which has just started its run in the Lyttelton at the National Theatre. Set in a small town in a Russia on the cusp of revolution (1905 rather than 1917), experimental chemist Protasov and his coterie of middle class hangers-on are waltzing through life oblivious to the turmoil outside the gates of their estate, but their tragedy is as much personal as they turn out to be as blind to the needs and desires of each other as well. 

Gorky’s writing is remarkably perceptive throughout the play. Written in 1905 as a direct response to the huge societal changes around him, he skilfully diagnoses the malaise of the self-absorbed bourgeoisie and lays bare the blinkeredness of their cosseted ignorance and the hopelessness of their grandiose idealism. But he does it with a real deftness of touch, creating richly detailed characters who are rarely so insufferable that one’s heart doesn’t ache at the inevitability of the violent collapse of their entire world. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s erudite academic Protasov fully exemplifies this – a man full of an acute sense of the growing importance of science in the world yet an abject failure at maintaining the relationships in his life.

And Davies navigates this balancing act beautifully, ensuring that there’s a bumbling levity close to hand to counteract the increasing sense of tragedy. Streatfeild is engagingly nerdy and gorgeously poetic as the hapless chemist, unable or unwilling to see the estrangement that is growing with his wife Yelena. Justine Mitchell is just magnificent here as a more aware member of this group and this increasing realisation of the situation as she searches for her long-lost happiness is played to perfection, Mitchell conveying all her intelligent passion just burning to be released yet tempered by the slow, awful realisation of the ways that the cards are falling. 

In among the circle of people in their lives, Lucy Black is tremendous as the much mocked Melaniya, a highly tragicomic figure in her fixation on Protasov who finds moments of real depth in amongst the neediness and Paul Higgins, as her brother Boris, is hauntingly effective as a man who everyone sees and yet to whom no-one really listens. As Protasov’s ailing sister Liza, Emma Lowndes espouses a heart-breakingly delicate embodiment of the situation, full of anguish at a world she can see changing yet doomed by her fragile temperament and health. And there’s vibrant work from Gerard Monaco and Florence Hall as a most flirtatious part of the serving class of the household, trying to determine if there is a moment here to be seized.

Upton’s version of this play feels appropriately fresh and contemporaneous, lyrically gorgeous at times yet also possessed of a knowing wit (the passing comment about cars is genius); Christie’s remarkable design works excellently in utilising the depth of the Lyttelton to its best advantage – the onstage laboratory is brilliant; and Neil Austin’s lighting design matches the swirling moods of the piece to great effect. There’s much to enjoy in this production in its willingness to portray a fullness of the spectrum that it traverses – the smashing humour right through to the crashing drama – a complexity that makes Children of the Sun a resounding success.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 14th July

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