Reviewed by James Karas
Children of the Sun is a play by Maxim Gorky that paints a pretty grim picture of a section of Russian society at the beginning of the 20th century. The National Theatre has produced a new version of the play by Andrew Upton on the Lyttleton stage.
It is one of those plays where most of the characters are annoying, exasperating, disgusting, or sickening. Most of them belong to the middle class and are the educated and better-off members of a society that is collapsing.
Let’s start with Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a scientist and the central character of the play. He is a spineless dishrag of a man who deserves most of the pejorative words listed above. He is under the delusion that he is doing important scientific research but is in fact a self-centered coward completely out of touch with what is happening under his roof or in society beyond. Streatfeild does a masterly job in the role. He has a silly smile at times, is unable to take a step forward and is the prime image of a useless man in an exploding world.
His sister Liza (Emma Lowndes) is an emotional cripple who is unable to take her medication without being prompted by a servant. Lowndes shrivels into a mousy being like the pathetic Liza.
Paul Higgins plays the local vet who is trying to convince Liza to marry him. He eventually comes to terms with his position and takes the Ophelia solution.
Vageen (Gerald Kyd) is a local artist, full of himself and purportedly in love with Protasov’s wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell). Like the rest, he is a useless and extremely annoying person. Mitchell gives a fine performance as the ignored wife of a useless man as she looks for comfort from a man she does not respect. She shows considerable gumption by going out to help people when cholera breaks out.
Protasov cannot pay his rent and what is left of the once-prominent house is run by the nanny (Maggie McCarthy), a garrulous old woman who is listening-impaired.
We watch these characters talk endlessly as evidence about what is happening outside mounts. There is hunger, unrest and finally cholera caused by Protasov’s poison leaking into the water. The children of the sun are still sleep-walking until the crowd starts killing people and breaking down the gates to their house.
The opposite side of the children of the sun is represented by Protasov’s maid Feema (Florence Hall). She is pretty, self-assured and ambitious. She has something to sell (her body) and wants the best price for it. Nazar (Paul Hickey) offers money for sex but she turns him down. She negotiates with his despicable son Misha (Matthew Hickey) but his price is too low. She finally finds a rich old man and leaves the Protasov house. She knows what she wants and goes after it without any qualms. Does she represent the new moral centre of this disgusting society?
We also meet Melanyia (Lucy Black), who sold herself to the highest bidder some years ago and is now a pathetic woman looking for some affection. She tries to buy Protasov’s affection by promising to build a lab for him. She is truly pathetic person well done by Black.
Director Howard Davies marshals the large cast (there are twenty of them) into a well-oiled ensemble with overlapping speaking, emotional outbursts and numerous confrontations that gives frightful picture of Russia and a splendid production of the play.
Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky in a version by Andrew Upton opened on April 16 and continues until July 14, 2013 at the Lyttleton Stage, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/