Gorking: STC’s Children of the Sun

In his writer’s note titled, appropriately enough, ‘Grappling with Gorky,’ Andrew Upton talks about the optimism of Russian writers. “But not blind optimism, an optimism despite the obvious impossibility of salvation.” You can see it the work of Tolstoy, Pasternak, Chekhov, Gorky. Not just optimism but a need to tell stories, to examine and investigate the dynamics of human interactions and the world they find themselves caught up in. Earlier in the year, I had the good fortune to see State Theatre Company of South Australia’s production of The Seagull in Adelaide, and between that production and Sydney Theatre Company’s Children of the Sun, there is a precious kind of alchemy at work, a resonance in style, a conversation between plays and ideas which is beautiful to behold.

It is rare, in any given year of theatre, to see two productions which mirror and amplify each other so beautifully as Children of the Sun and The Seagull. They feel like cousins, cut from the same cloth – the adaptations are sparkling, crisp, new, and they are in the same sense comedies: comedies of emotions and feelings, comedies of love and Big Ideas; comedies of humans, being. Like Upton’s other adaptations (Chekhov, Bulgakov, Gorky, Ibsen), it is peppered with colloquial mannerisms and expressions which are juxtaposed against the story’s historical context and period setting to highlight the play’s immediacy, its new(ish)-ness. First produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain in April 2013, Upton’s original adaptation of Children of the Sun had an original cast of twenty-odd; here, it has been re-adapted and whittled down to a taught twelve. Reading the script of the London production, there is a kind of background clutter to Upton’s version of the play which is not missed in Sydney. Rather, the result of this continuation of the adaptation process is that we have a version of Gorky’s play which is elegant, free of any baggage, and is not so much a new play as very much alive, a living breathing thing. It’s as Upton says: you get the feeling “they are literally making it up as they go along.”
There’s a beautiful kind of Chekhovian despair that sits at the heart of Kip Williams’ production, as much as Upton’s adaptation. A despair that comes from the characters’ blissful naivety at the reality of what they are caught up in; despair borne from an audience’s knowledge of what did happen around the time of the play (1860s, as much as the 1900s in which it was written); a despair of seeing characters – people – like these get drunk on ambition and reach further than they’ve ever reached before only to fall short and get burnt by it all, but they never stop trying; we never stop watching and seeing ourselves reflected back in these plays. These are people on the edge of a great leap of faith into a great unknown. People thinking, feeling, reaching, dreaming, grasping, teetering on the edge; people asking big questions even though the answers might not be forthcoming, nor might they be what they want to hear. For them, “the readiness is all,” as Hamlet said.
Kip Williams’ direction here is crystalline, jewel-like; the play’s action – like Chekhov’s, in that it is largely responses to what has happened elsewhere – is tightly controlled, but expansive in that it allows for a strong sense of playfulness. There’s a capriciousness and a restlessness to this production, highlighted through David Fleischer’s set, Renée Mulder’s costumes, Damien Cooper’s lighting and Max Lyandvert’s music. Fleischer’s set, perhaps springing from that for Williams’ Romeo and Juliet for Sydney Theatre Company a year ago, is set upon a revolve, and is comprised of a series of theatrical flats, angled and positioned in such a way as to suggest an estate house in the Russian countryside. From the opening moments (set to the opening skirl of Philip Glass’ ‘Floe’) to the final haunting image, the set barely stays still, turning turning turning with a restless drive to think, to create, to seek, to challenge and discover, and there are many moments to treasure. Mulder’s costumes, all in-period, are gorgeous – long skirts, blouses, trousers and boots, jackets; everything feels lived-in, organic, intrinsic to the world of the play both in production as well as its historical setting. Damien Cooper’s lighting is similarly warm and stark as required, the cocooning lamp-lit interiors juxtaposed with the harsh bolts of lightning in Act Three, and the fiery orange glow of the conclusion. Max Lyandvert’s music, noticeable in a few small instances, is poignant and intensely moving; a lyrical theme embodies possibility and optimism, while the underscore to the finale sounds like Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ in all its finely-wrought emotional depth and gravity.
Williams’ cast are all splendid; like Chekhov and Gorky’s other plays, like Upton’s other adaptations, this is an ensemble show, and the cast are a true ensemble. In a Shakespearean fashion, no role feels small or uninhabited, no character feels anything other than a person, and no role truly outshines another. There are two groups of characters in Children of the Sun: those who are aware of what is going on around them, and those who are not. The first group are essentially the servants and labourers, the ones who are tied to the land and the village. The second are the titular ‘children of the sun,’ the intellectuals and dreams, thinkers and idealists; but, as in life, perhaps the distinction between the two aren’t so easily distinguished as they appear.
Toby Truslove as Protasov, the scientist, is full of a bumbling charm, a word-drunk intellectual who chases the truth, the secrets of life, the wisdom and benefits of (scientific) knowledge. In a defiant moment just before interval, he stresses his case for the power and hunger of knowledge, the desire which burns in him, which keeps him going, day after day, experiment after experiment, just as the sun doesn’t stop burning, the earth doesn’t stop turning, the moon doesn’t stop orbiting. Cowed by his words, Liza (Jacqueline McKenzie) reads one of her poems and we see the distinction between the siblings: where one has his head in the clouds and concerns himself with the possibility of tomorrow, the other is concerned with the people and how the actions of today will affect the people of tomorrow. It’s a beautiful moment, and brings into direct contrast these characters, their motivations, passions and loves. There is a touch of Ophelia to Liza’s eventual fate, and McKenzie plays it with grace and pathos, and it is heartbreaking to watch. Helen Thompson’s Melaniya is a close cousin of her Mrs Warren from last year; while she perhaps gets some of the more comedic moments, she never descends into caricature or parody, but retains her integrity; her declaration of her attraction to Protasov is identifiably awkward and humorous, but her apology is humbling, and she too plays her role with grace. Justine Clarke’s Yelena, Protasov’s long-suffering wife, is a voice of stoicism and reason, even if she is weary of the life she has with the scientist; there is a strength and resolute belief in human-kind’s desire to connect with one another, to talk and share thoughts, that is beautifully enunciated and embodied, a contrast to Protasov’s introverted world of science and reason. Hamish Michael’s Vageen is a bit of a boor; an artist, he has a tendency to rail and lecture upon the merits of art and artistic expression, though he is one of the first to flee when the villagers arrive at the gates. Chris Ryan’s Boris, in love with Liza, is one of the first victims of the lifestyle. A vet, he feels everything in no small measure, and his declarations of his love for Liza are heartbreaking because we know what his eventual fate will be (in general, if not the specifics).
Out of the household staff, it is perhaps Valerie Bader who holds the household of idealists and dreamers together. As their Nanny she is gruff, but has their well-being at heart, and she tries to boss them around, tries to get them to do a decent day’s work, to look beyond their little world. Only as the villagers arrive at the gates and Liza’s fate is sealed, only then do we see them heeding her advice, however late it may be. While Jay Laga’aia’s Nazar seems to have walked out of a different play – his larger than life portrayal of the pawnshop owner seeming to have come from America in the 1920s or 30s – there is a warmth and endearing nature to his performance, and we soon accept him as part of the world of the play. Like the Nanny, he too tries to get Protasov and the others to fix the problems before they escalate. As Nazar’s son Misha, James Bell is all enthusiasm and affection, like a little foal or a giraffe, skittish but endearing, and more than a little in love with Feema, the maid. Their brief scenes together are beautiful, little snatches of something that might be in the wings of the play’s story. Contessa Treffone’s Feema is girlish and capricious, but wily enough to know how to manipulate others to get what she wants; at times stubborn and headstrong, she is no less endearing. Yure Covich’s Yegor, the blacksmith and labourer, is a brutish man, but rather than vilify him, we see what makes him tick, why he is like he is, and we understand him, accept him; realise how much the household needs him. Julia Ohannessian’s Avdotya is only briefly seen, but she is another fully-realised character, Yegor’s wife and eventual maid in the household; it is perhaps she who impels the children of the sun into action, late in the piece, as she informs them of the sickness in the village, of the plight of her children, of the growing anger towards the house of dreamers.
As Children of the Sun unfolds, as the characters burn love laugh and cry, get soaked, fight and rage, it is hard not to be caught up in the fervour and passion of their arguments and passions. While the beginning scenes take a while to find their grounding, they are no less compelling and beguiling; when Melaniya brings in her basket of eggs, late in the first half, the play leaps into life and the idealists throwing eggs around the room with the abandon of children, much to Liza’s anguish. There’s a frivolity at play here, but underneath it is a comment on the way we live now as much as then: who are we to throw away eggs – resources – just because they don’t hold any use for us today? While we may all be Protasov’s, stuck in our laboratories, trying to find the next big breakthrough that will change the world, I can’t help but find the heart of the play in Liza and all her prophetic statements, as she sits alone in the house in the dead of night, struggling with her conscience, lit only by a lamp. “How can you be right?” she asks,
Yes, the world may roll on for another thousand years but at what daily, hourly, soul-destroying, inhuman, crushing cost? We have to find peace now. Now. Not in two hundred years, not in twenty years. Now.

Theatre playlist: 58. Children of the Revolution, T. Rex

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