Monday, September 22, 2014

CHILDREN OF THE SUN

Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky.

 Adapted by Andrew Upton. Directed by Kip Williams. Sydney Theatre Company. Drama Theatre. Sydney Opera House. September 8 - October 25 2014.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

 Toby Truslove as Protasov, Helen Thomson as Melaniya in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun © Brett Boardman 2014

 

Flames flicker through the swirling ring of smoke that wafts across the stag . Rioters are storming the gates of Yelena (Justine Clarke) and Protasov’s (Toby Truslove) prestigious country residence as Andrew Upton’s new version of Maxim Gorky’s prophetic vision of the collapse of Russia’s privileged class reaches its powerful climax in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun.
Gorky wrote the play while in prison for his involvement as an activist after the failed 1905 revolution. Children of the Sun is set in 1860’s Tsarist Russia, when the seeds of discontent that would eventually see the overthrow of the Tsarist regime in 1917 were already germinating in a nation divided by the injustices of a privileged class system. Gorky’s characters reflect the intense divide between wealth and poverty, privilege and disadvantage. The preoccupation with individual concern, couched in the obsessive nature of Protasov’s scientific inventions, or the desperate nature of lovesick passion of a class unconcerned with the social issues of their time is set in stark contrast to the desperate struggles of an oppressed class. This comes to the fore with violet consequence when the copper lining of Protasov’s experimental well leaks, polluting the water and leading to the outbreak of a deadly cholera epidemic in the village. Oblivious to consequence and impervious to responsibility, Gorky’s aristocratic characters lay the foundations for their own doom. Only the depressive Liza (Jacqueline Mckenzie) subsumed by the cruel injustices of a world of war and starvation possesses the political wisdom and foresight to prophesy a vision of portending doom. Her real world, clouded over by the ignorance of those about her, remains unheeded and explained as a delusionary obsession arising from her fragile mental state.
Contrasting with Liza’s prophetic warning is the fickle absurdity of unrequited love that makes fools of Gorky’s poor mortals. The country vet, Boris (Chris Ryan) proclaims his passionate adoration of Liza. The artist Vageen (Hamish Michael) declares his love for Yelena to no avail. The widow, Melanya (Helen Thomson) is enslaved by her infatuation with the oblivious Protasov. The maid Feema (Contessa Treffone) is drawn towards the animal strength of the estate’s labourer, the rough-hewn Yegor (Yure Covich) and ignores the wimpish protestations of love by Misha (James Bell), son of the village official Nazar (Jay Laga’aia). Nanny (Valerie Bader) longs for an order that she sees crumbling about her, sliding irrevocably towards decay, while those about her inhabit their world of fanciful and farcical delusion.
Justine Clarke as Yelena in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun © Brett Boardman 2014
 
Andrew Upton’s unabashedly contemporary version, initially commissioned by the National Theatre of Great Britain, maintains the conventions of the period while thrusting the language into the twenty-first century. Out of the mouths of characters of Russia in the nineteenth century comes the colourful vernacular of our time. And yet, I am unperturbed by the utterance of “bonkers” from the mouth of Boris or Liza’s four letter expletives. Upton, craftily and expertly affords our ears the power of relevance without distorting our sensitivity to the time. Gorky’s indictment of a decaying class and his observance of the foible of human nature remain preserved. His indebtedness to Chekov in the perception of his people, the incisive observance of self-indulgence and the pervading atmosphere of futile existence permeate the lives of his characters. Shades of Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People resonates with the contamination of the water supply and Liza’s eloquent and impassioned announcement of her intention to leave Protasov echoes the desperate need of Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House. They are moments that anchor the profundity of Gorky’s narrative within a play that is at times hilariously farcical, ironically comical, seriously melodramatic,  poignantly prophetic and ultimately tragic.
 
Justine Clarke as Yelena;Julia Ohannessian as Avdotya in Children of the Sun. Sydney Theatre Company. Photograph by Brett Boardman
 
Upton’s adaptation combined with director Kip Williams’s inspired and volatile direction offer a fusion of the riveting forces of dramatic engagement. We are drawn irrevocably both into a time of forces of social change and historical consequence and the reverberating echoes of relevance to our own time of political, social and economic unrest. David Fleischer’s inescapably symbolic set design of theatre flats on a revolving set, which at times reveal the authentic interiors of a Russian stately home and at other times the reverse side of timber flats, supported by French legs stabilized by sandbags allows Williams and his cast the fluid and continuous traversing of the large stage. The fluidity of this production is also the pronouncement of a restless uncertainty, brimming with uneasy expectation, leading the characters and the audience towards the final conflagration. As the play advances towards its denouement, the flats are laid down as a gesture of the collapse of a class that had lost all vestige of political ideology and an awareness of the divisive nature of their blind ignorance. Children of the Sun is Gorky’s prophetic pronouncement of history’s inevitable consequence and this production’s testament to the lasting relevance of universal resistance to history’s lessons for all humanity.
Justine Clarke as Yelena, Jacqueline McKenzie as Liza, Toby Truslove as Protasov in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun © Brett Boardman 2014
Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun is more than a revival of a classic. It is a brilliantly and sensitively staged version of Gorky’s comedy of human folly, respectful of the play’s style, its humour, its prophetic pathos and profound intent, yet cognizant of its relevance to our time and circumstance. Williams directs an impeccable cast with flair and imagination that lend the production both gravitas and piercing irony.  Children of the Sun is a must see triumph in the Sydney Theatre Company’s illustrious repertoire.  
Justine Clarke as Yelena, Jacqueline McKenzie as Liza, Helen Thomson as Melaniya in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun © Brett Boardman 2014
 

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