“Children of the Sun” by Maxim Gorky

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Wednesday 1st May 2013

God I love theatre. About halfway through today’s performance of Children of the Sun, the show had to be stopped due to an audience member being taken ill. Now obviously, that in itself isn’t a good thing and I wish him a speedy recovery, but the instance added a certain frisson to the rest of the performance. Until that point, it felt a little bit like the actors were going through the motions, and to be perfectly honest I wasn’t really paying attention. As soon as the stage manager entered, however, a charge became apparent, and after a short five minute break the actors returned, this time with a punch. We were back on track.

Something about seeing the actors forced to break character means we consider more intently the artistry behind their performance, and what was so exciting about the rest of this performance was that it ended up feeling like there was a sly acknowledgement of the audience, so that the strong performances Howard Davies extracted from his cast (as he always does) now had an extra edge.

The interruption also felt pertinent to the show, which throughout always has the possibility of sudden upheaval just moments away. Set in a cavernous-but-decaying house, Maxim Gorky’s play focusses around a group of intellectuals – doctors, vets, painters, writers – and their nonchalance and self-interest during a time of social change.

At the centre is Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfield), an unhappy scientist completely devoured by his work at the expense of his relationship with his wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell). She looks towards other men while his sister Liza slowly falls into despair, feeling something is wrong. Strip away the context and it’s not much more than a few interwoven love stories between middle-aged people.

Except it’s not. Context, here, is everything, as Protasov’s complacence causes a septic tank to fall into disrepair, having rather dire consequences. The populace turns against the intellectuals.

Gorky’s play (in a sharp new version by Andrew Upton) takes a swipe at the life of the intelligensia, who though they spout talk of populism and revolution, live a life of disconnect. They stand around, moping and secluded, talking without doing, and expecting the world to change without taking action (something which, I imagine, strikes a particularly strong chord with much of the audience).

Protasov’s experiments embody this idea neatly; though he believes that an appreciation and understanding of the workings of the cosmos will lead to a better future, Liza points out that it isn’t actually doing anything, especially at such a small-scale level. I find it hard to agree with Gorky on this one – it’s often the small discoveries which have the biggest impact, and science does change lives – but the metaphor is a neat one nonetheless, allowing ‘knowledge’ to be presented physically as well as abstractly. And it allows for a rather awesome final moment as (spoiler) the scientist’s work literally blows up in his face. It’s a moment which brings back the child in you, especially seeing as the tension is built up nicely with some well-made images in the preceeding moments (lit beautifully by Neil Austin). It’s also been foreshadowed earlier, when a smaller fireball is created in the first act, with everyone else again on the periphery.

Bunny Christie’s sprawling set feels a little bit like the way we imagine the human mind when we’re young, with a central ‘hub’ and lots of little departments for the various jobs arranged around it and lots of corridors leading to unknown synapses. It doesn’t actually make much sense architecturally and on a practical level would be a bit of a nightmare to live in, but this only adds to the sense that these characters are disconnected from normal life.

Some ensembles may get lost in this space, but Davies directs with such scale that their personalities easily fill it. Streatfield and Mitchell give a real sense of a marriage gone wrong, with moments of tenderness in a sea of resentment, while Paul Higgins (who, more than most actors, I find impossible to remove from his most well-known character, The Thick Of It’s Jamie) thrusts some energy and life between them as the vet Boris. His sister, Melaniya, is played by Lucy Black, whose love for the scientist is heart-wrenchingly rendered. Managing to convey hysteria without overriding the production is Emma Lowndes as Liza, who slowly becomes more and more erratic as the play wears on, so much so that in the final scene Children of the Sun feels like her tragedy.

In a programme note, Upton declares that the reason he loves Russian writers is down to their “Extremity, complexity, brutality [and] optimism. But not blind optimism, an optimism despite the obvious impossibility of salvation”. It dawns on me that this is perhaps the reason why I often find myself enjoying Davies’ work, despite the fact it goes against my general tastes a little. He presents all these things against a detailed, clear historical backdrop and thus throws into light all sorts of violently political questions. Upton’s note could also, in my eyes, be a note towards the things theatre should be striving for, and by and large Children of the Sun achieves them all, asking complex philosophical questions about our own politics and yet forcing us to maintain that ever-important glimmer of hope.

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