Children of the Sun runs at the National Theatre in London until 14 July 2013. By Maxim Gorky, adapted by Andrew Upton, directed by Howard Davies.
This isn’t going to be a long review, because I don’t know quite what to say about the National Theatre’s production of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun (adapted by Andrew Upton – even here in London, I cannot escape the reach of STC). On the one hand, it was visually spectacular: Bunny Christie’s set is probably the most detailed and certainly the most explosive I have ever seen. On the other hand... to what end? I spent a long time wondering what I came out of the play with, and I’m not sure I came out with anything, except maybe a bit of self-doubt.
This is one of those shows that makes you go, “hang on, did I get it?” It made me wonder if there was there some point that everyone else in the audience was marvelling at that had sailed clean over my head. I’m pretty sure this was not the case – “what’s it about?” I heard one woman ask another at interval, with the response, “fucked if I know” – but still, I spent a lot of time wondering what I was missing.
As far as I could tell, this play was just plain... boring. Especially the first half. It started to get interesting and dynamic in the scene where everyone starts throwing eggs, but this is nearly at the second act of a four act play, so COME ON, guys. I know Gorky’s part of that Russian school of drama which is all terribly domestic and subtle, where a lot can be happening in subtext and not very much in text, but if there were INTENSE CHARACTER INTERACTIONS AND DRAMA OMG happening somewhere, they were buried so far beneath the text that it was almost invisible: subtext in the sense of “subterranean”. While this is certainly not one of Gorky’s best works, I don’t think the blame can be laid at his door here, at least not entirely. Nor is it Upton’s fault in the adaptation (though it could stand some red-penning – I think it needs to be about twenty minutes shorter at least). I think it’s direction and, more particularly, acting. The ensemble couldn’t seem to make up their mind whether to play it strictly realistic or to launch themselves into melodrama. The show was at their strongest when an actor strongly committed one way or another – perhaps the strongest scene in the whole show is when Melanea (Lucy Black) throws herself at Pavel’s (Geoffrey Streatfeild) feet and confesses to him that she didn’t read his books, she licked them. Black goes totally OTT here and it works brilliantly. As a whole, however, there was a sort of indecision from the cast, which I have to think comes from the director (can I be accused of treason for saying that about Howard Davies? probably). It wasn’t so much subtle as confusing.
One final note, before I break my promise to make this review short (short by my standards, anyway). I did see this show in its first preview, so it’s possible that a lot of these kinks will get worked out and everything will settle down and be splendid. I do sincerely hope, however, that the National Theatre finds a way to ensure that the fire alarm doesn’t go off at the end of every performance.