Blocking out the Sun: Review of STC’s Children of the Sun

by theatrebloggers

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While the Sydney Theatre Company’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun (1905) isn’t an awful production, Andrew Upton has tried very hard to make it awful.

Gorky set his play in the country home of a Russia family born into privilege. Professor Protasov works tireless in his laboratory, attempting to unlock the secrets of life. But his devotion has caused him to neglect the people around him. He barely notices his wife, who is possibly finding emotional solace in the resident artist, neither is he sensitive to his fragile sister’s despair, nor the almost obsessive devotion his best friend’s sister has for him. Prostasov claims that when set against the vastness of creation, petty human concerns pales in comparison. It is only by appreciating ‘the whole’ that humanity can hope to advance. Ironically, in doing so he has separated himself from that humanity, and as the play progresses we see that this impacts not only the people who love him but it highlights the burgeoning gulf that exists between the upper and lower social classes. Unrest is growing in the lower classes, but it is the ignorance that each has for the other that breeds it.

This is a play largely about ideas, and even in the original text there is little plot upon which these concepts hang. As a result, maintaining an audience’s engagement is always going to be a challenge when mounting this play. Although there are moments when this production grabs our attention there are long stretches that are just plain dull.

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Following on from The Maids last year, Mr Upton has had a crack at adapting (updating) this piece and all his old tricks are there: colloquial language and ready swearing, drawing our attention once again to the fact that he is at best a mediocre talent. While the language has been updated he has opted to maintain the Russian setting and turn of the century aesthetic, no doubt because he thought it looked pretty. In his director’s note Kip Williams states that this has created a tension in the piece. He may go onto to say that it is fruitful (what else can he say?), but this tension makes the whole production ring false. None of the characters speak, act or conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with the world they inhabit. And the less said about the crude, clunky and embarrassing innuendos Upton has put in the characters’ mouths the better. There is nothing wrong with adapting a text, but if you’re going to make nineteenth-century Russian characters speak and behave like contemporary Americans is there any point leaving them in their original setting? In a way it’s insulting, as it suggests that the theatre-going public is unable to appreciate the anguish, reverence, love or joys of a character unless they are expressed in our colloquialisms.

Children of the Sun features an all-star cast, though it would be wrong to say that they were an ensemble. Whilst a great deal of talent features here, the production felt fragmented into a dozen tiny plays, each with a different actor starring as the lead. The cast lacked harmony, which made it difficult to endure through the dialogue-heavy, light-on-plot story.

The female cast tended to outshine their male counter-parts with Jaqueline McKenzie putting in a beautifully measured performance as the ailing Liza. Justine Clarke was credible as Yelena the neglected wife of Protasov whilst Helen Thomson was unfailingly charismatic as Melaniya, a Protasov devotee, though her portrayal bordered on caricature. This was arguably the case for Chris Ryan as Boris (would-be lover of Liza), Hamish Michael as Vageen (a Russian Hemmingway and admirer of Yelena) and Toby Truslove as Protasov (the oblivious chemist), though Truslove had moments of clarity and pause, in particular his monologue towards the close of the first act. Julie Ohannessian and Yure Covich played husband and wife, Avdotya and Yegor, peasants and servants to the illustrious family. Both Ohannessian and Covich brought a sense of hardship that revealed the Russian landscape of which Gorky wrote. Amongst the rest of the cast, however, much of the emotion attached to the Russian character was traded in for an American sense of joviality.

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Once again, Kip Williams (with set designer David Fleischer) has utilised the revolving stage, and a beautifully crafted set, filled with secret nooks and crannies for all to hide in. It is not overdone, and largely the set is used to enhance the storytelling. Of note was the final scene in which rioters storm the house, wonderfully illustrated by a burning fire behind the scenery, creating a sobering image to finish on.

This is a sloppy production in a lot of regards. The set may be gorgeous, but the adapted script is mediocre and the choice to maintain the original aesthetic seems arbitrary. While there are some wonderful individual performances, the cast doesn’t mesh. Kip Williams is a talented director, but you wouldn’t think it from this production. None of his usual flare is on display; no doubt he’s been channeling his energies into Macbeth. Gorky’s story and his ideas are still potent, and there are moments when they become apparent long enough to capture our attention, but these brief glimpses are punctuated by extended periods of boredom and the continual sense that the characters simply don’t belong in this world.

Children of the Sun is playing at the Sydney Opera House until the 25th of October. For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/children-of-the-sun

 

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