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.

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