Sunday 12 May 2013

Children of the sun - Gorky at the National Theatre

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes

Early on in Maxim Gorky's "Children of the Sun" currently playing at the National Theatre, Protasov, the chemist, complains that if no-one watches his experiment heating then it will boil over and be ruined. The same principle is explored thoughout the course of the play with Protasov (and others) neglecting to watch over their relationships and more importantly, neglecting to watch over developments outside of their comfortable surroundings.

Written in 1905, the play follows the relationships of a group of bourgeois intellectuals, their quarrels, desires, infidelities and inadequacies, played out against the background of growing discontent amongst the villagers, representing the "masses" of Tsarist Russia, most of whom lived in abject poverty and ignorance. These people are represented by the servants and a random vagrant who are treated as either figures of fun or part of the furniture by the circle of scientist, veterinarian, artist and their company. 

The old, accepting working class is represented by the ever dutiful elderly nanny who is also treated disrespectfully despite her devotion, whilst the younger servants grow openly scornful of their masters and in their own way rebel or revolt against them. Furthermore, as the hapless Melania, searching for love but not knowing how to find it, eventually recognises - everything in this society appears to be for sale - cloth and meat - and people too. Melania wants to buy love from the married and unobtainable Protasov whilst other characters discuss the cost of their love - in roubles. Meanwhile, Protasov's delicate sister Lisa has premonitions of approaching tragedy but is considered to be "unwell". This theme of "sickness" recurs throughout the play, again connected to poverty and ignorance.  

Gorky wrote the play in 1905 in response to the failed attempt at revolution that took place during that year and despite setting it in the 1860's, non-one was fooled. At first the Tsarist authorities banned it. When the ban was lifted, it was first performed in the Moscow Art Theatre in October 1905 where the performance had to be halted in the third act when off-stage noises from the mob caused panic in the theatre with patrons thinking the noises were coming from the street. The original cast included Olga Knipper, Chekhov's wife as Lisa and Vassili Kachalov as Protasov. It was Kachalov that calmed the audience enabling it to continue.

Gorky was briefly imprisoned during the Tsarist regime and became close to the pinnacle of the Soviet regime, including to Stalin. However, the dictator turned against him, placing him under house arrest, and it is widely thought that Gorky's death was the result of poisoning on Stalin's orders in 1936. Cynically, Stalin was one of the pall bearers at Gorky's funeral. During one of the many show trials of the late 1930's, former Soviet Bukharin was accused of being party to Gorky's murder. It is unlikely that the truth will ever be known.

Returning to the current production, there were outstanding performances from Lucy Black as Melania, Emma Lowndes as Lisa and Gerald Kyd who was thoroughly convincing as the self-centred dilettante artist, Vageen. Florence Hall as the servant girl Feema also put in a cheeky performance! As ever at the national there was a wonderful set and a special note on the costumers, especially those of Lisa and Yelena, Protasov's wife which were brilliant replicas(?) of Russian arts and crafts style of the early 20th century. A nice touch. The play runs until July 14th.

(Picture above - staircase from Gorky' House in Moscow)

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