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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Children of the Sun
Lyttelton Theatre Spring - Summer 2013

Maxim Gorky's characters are often a lot like Chekhov's – bourgeois Russians at the turn of the last century, either vaguely aware of the impending social changes or wilfully unaware, and generally wrapped up in their own unhappiness. 

One difference is that Gorky's characters are more self-aware and talk at length about how unhappy they are rather than just getting on with being unhappy. 

In Children of The Sun (1905, here as adapted by Andrew Upton), that self-consciousness is central to the playwright's critical vision, because it is shown to be culpable and irresponsible self-indulgence. 

Self-styled scientist Pavel is happy to ignore everything around him in his very Chekhovian quest toward the ideal world of a century or two ahead. And so the fact that his wife Yelena feels neglected, and his sick sister Liza is sinking into morbid madness, and his best friend Boris is depressed out of unrequited love for Liza, and Boris's sister Melaniya has convinced herself she adores Pavel, and the local artist Vageen has designs on Yelena – none of this registers on him, just as all of the others are so fascinated by their own tragic situations that they have little room to acknowledge each other's unhappiness. 

And meanwhile none of them can be more than momentarily distracted by the fact that there's a cholera epidemic in the village, that Pavel's experiments are poisoning the local water, and that the villagers are understandably beginning to resent these rich dilettantes at the edge of town. 

Science, philosophy, poetry, art, even romantic love and introspection are bourgeois luxuries that have very little to do with real life and the real lives of working people, warns the play, and at some point they – the ones who can't afford these indulgences – are going to turn on those who waste their lives and resources. 

As Howard Davies' excellent production makes clear, this is no mere political tract, and Gorky is a great enough writer to retain some sympathy for his dacha of fools even as he's condemning them. 

Each of the characters has equal moments of ridiculousness and sympathy – they may be foolish and even criminal to wallow in their unhappiness as they do, but they are really unhappy, and we do care. 

A uniformly excellent large cast is led by Geoffrey Streatfeild's Pavel, Paul Higgens' Boris, Emma Lowndes' Liza and Justine Mitchell's Yelena.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Children of the Sun - National Theatre 2013 
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