Left – Jacqueline McKenzie and Valerie Bader. Right – Justine Clarke and Jay Laga'aia. Photo – Brett Boardman
Breathing warm Australian breath into the literary pages of Gorky is no easy task.
More than a century ago, after the failed uprising of 1905, Gorky sat in prison and wrote this play – a cluttered and complete portrait of failure – “a lack of ideology and political clarity” which was to present as “a comedy.” However this is not a classical comedy, like that of the English Restoration – it is not defined by a few ditties and a series of weddings. Russian comedies, at least in this instance, is about the wince-worthy hopeless foibles of people – we laugh at the mess they create for themselves – their pride, their lack of awareness of their selfishness. Here Sydney Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Andrew Upton offers wry, incisive humour into the classic text with great dexterity – and has a huge amount of charm and rollicking action. But the base of every comedy is tragedy and Children of the Sun is no exception.
Slices of wall, dressed and set, spotted around a revolving stage create the many rooms in the house of Protasov (Toby Truslove) – bedroom, laboratory, kitchen – all on the perimeter of an open garden. Set design by David Fleischer pushes the internal domestic action up front of the stage – the rumbles in the background are kept at bay initially only occasionally breaking through walls with earthy abandon.
Inside the house of Protasov, all are distracted, driven, inspired or ruled by their single-minded focus. An apocalyptic future haunts the thoughts of Liza (Jacqueline McKenzie), whilst concern for art (and unrequited love) troubles Vageen (Hamish Michaels), a distracted husband troubles Yelena (Justine Clarke), the pursuit of money and security troubles Feema (Contessa Treffone), the pursuit of a purpose aka husband consumes Melaniya (Helen Thomson), the pursuit of the affections of Liza distracts Boris (Chris Ryan), the pursuit of payment drives Nazah (Jay Laga’aia), the pursuit of female companionship as a symbol of achievement inspires Misha (James Bell), the pursuit of knowledge and making a contribution to human kind through scientific discovery rules Protasov. And order, civility drives Nanny (Valerie Bader) who desperately trugs on the reigns of propriety to keep all from disappearing into their own navel. All is balanced nicely by director Kip Williams – who swirls the action and ideologies about on stage like a glass of Irvine Grand Merlot in the candlelight.
While Upton openly wonders in the program “What is it about the Russian writers…?” It’s an undeniable fact that since 2009, the frequency of Russian content (adaptations primarilly) on Sydney’s mainstages has appeared to be a popular programming choice. Though sprawling unambiguous essays on ideology, the work itself is designed to catch the conscience of middleclass audiences – delighting them with the elegance of period costumes, and the grand spectacle of some of Australia’s most impressive actors powering through a narrative with more story arcs than one can poke a stick at. It’s impressive.
It is a warning.
This is not an easy, light night at the theatre once the fizzy and dazzle and charm has subsided. The sucker punch left to the final image – a cauldron of flames, now that the community and society is in fevered crisis.
Here Upton is as brutal and beautiful as Gorky, once having presented the warning to the National Theatre of Great Britain in London (a cast of 20!) – and now again at the Sydney Opera House in Australia (a Chekovian dozen.). As self-concerned decadence rises, the structure supporting such decadence must fall. Children of the Sun is a plea (as much as it is a joke) from Gorky, and a reminder from Upton, of our social responsibility beyond the petty personal distractions of love, work and money.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
Children of the Sun
by Maxim Gorky | in a new version by Andrew Upton
Director Kip Williams
Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 13 Sep - 25 Oct 2014
Tickets: $58 – $99
Bookings: 02 9250 1777 | sydneytheatre.com.au