Review: Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, National Theatre, Lyttelton stage

Emma Lowndes as Liza and Paul Higgins as Boris. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Emma Lowndes as Liza and Paul Higgins as Boris. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

In conversations about seminal productions of recent years, specifically seminal productions I have missed, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, performed at the National Theatre in 2010, often comes up. A russian classic, adapted by Andrew Upton, directed by Howard Davies, designed by Bunny Christie and with Paul Higgins and Justine Mitchell in the cast, made a huge impression to anyone who saw it. The current production of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, with many of the same people involved, inevitably carries high expectations. And they are not squandered.

Early 20th century Russia, the middle classes play and live in the protected bubble of self-delusion and good intentions while a new world is tearing down the gates. Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has a god-like insight into the future of science and cosmos but human interactions escape him (and he escapes them). His wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell), an intelligent earthy woman, desperately tries to connect her husband to herself and to the world, and her continuous failure wounds her deeply. His friend Boris (Paul Higgins) despises illusions and has clarity of vision, but his inability to act and affect change increasingly drains him of hope, with only his love for Liza giving him focus. Protasov’s sister Liza (Emma Lowndes), a vulnerable woman who feels the world as a stab, clings to, spars with and rebuffs Boris in equal measures. Other friends, lovers, work associates and servants swarm around the family, the focus of the community for generations and the eye of the hurricane to come.

It was surprisingly easy to see parallels with modern times. The middle classes are driven by misplaced good will and a version of progress that’s both majestic and narrow minded. They fail not because they lack morality but because they lack empathy with anyone who is not like them.

I found the rhythms of language, both in terms of text and performance, extraordinary. Words and looks and action often crisscrossed like laser beams, giving the performance a sense of mischief in contrast with the upcoming doom. A beautiful speech about the vertigo of love is undercut with a play of bingo, a naughty little business with some eggs turns desperate. No scene or action was any one thing.

The cast is universally excellent. Geoffrey Streatfeild balances much needed lightness with the character’s essential failure to gain insight in his own life. Justine Mitchell brings fierce intelligence and soulful purpose to Yelena’s actions. Emma Lowndes gives Liza decency and heart far beyond the wound of the character. Most of all, I was struck by Paul Higgin’s Boris, King Lear’s Fool and Hamlet rolled into one, his jibes sharp, his pain pulsating and yet invisible to others.

Bunny Christie’s set has a beauty of lines and purpose. It suggests depth – a garden with a wall, a corridor vertical to the audience, a box (Protasov’s lab) within the box of the Lyttelton, but doesn’t push the action out of sight. It’s entirely naturalistic but its clean lines guide the eye and the action.

And then it’s the last scene. Saying too much would ruin it, but it’s rare to see such tangible sense of danger recreated on stage. After the emotional and intellectual richness of the play, the end was pure adrenaline rush.

The Hamlet Challenge: Boris affects a joke about the weather: “To umbrella or not to umbrella”, only the joke is not a joke, as we realise later in the play when Hamlet (and Ophelia) are mentioned once more. To say more would spoil it.

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