Maxim Gorky was a political prisoner when he wrote Children of the Sun in 1905. Imprisoned for blaming the Tsar for the massacre of peaceful civil rights demonstrators on Bloody Sunday, which ignited a wave of uprisings across Russia, he captured the turbulent mood of the times with his literally explosive play. Twelve years before the Bolsheviks finally brought the autocratic Romanov dynasty to a bloody end the acrid smell of revolution in the air is as potent as gunpowder.
Unlike his previous play The Lower Depths, here Gorky focuses on the professional middle class, blindly frittering away their lives in worthless projects and unrequited love, unaware that their way of life is doomed until too late. As gentleman scientist Protasov retreats to his laboratory to conduct chemical experiments, his frustrated wife Yelena becomes intimate with bohemian artist Vageen. And while Protasov’s highly strung sister Liza resists the advances of besotted vet Boris, the latter’s desperate widowed sister Melaniya prostrates herself in front of Protasov. Meantime, the riots raging in the town are getting nearer as local working people vent their anger for years of oppression by the establishment.
Considering Gorky’s Marxist affiliations, it is surprising how sympathetically he portrays his highly educated but ineffectual bourgeois characters, self-centredly preoccupied with their own narrow personal interests and ignorant of what is going on in the larger world outside. In this talky play about the chattering classes, there is a real sense of society on the brink of radical change, as we also see upwardly mobile peasants turned businessmen buying up property, servants rejecting allegiance to their masters and labourers challenging the gentry’s authority.
This new version by Andrew Upton certainly gives this century-old play a colloquial immediacy, not to mention accentuating the satirical humour, though some of its linguistic anachronisms are a bit distracting. Following on from Gorky’s Philistines, Bulgakov’s The White Guard and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Children of the Sun renews his successful Russian drama collaboration with director Howard Davies, who again elicits fine ensemble performances from a large cast. Bunny Christie’s impressive design shows the Protasovs’ spacious home with a self-contained glass lab, backed by a tall brick wall blocking out the town, while Neil Austin’s lighting suggesting distant fire and Paul Groothuis sound of clamorous voices add much to the febrile atmosphere.
Geoffrey Streatfeild reveals the absurdity of the amiable but absent-minded Protasov, an emotionally illiterate man who waxes lyrical about the potential of chemistry to “uncover the secret of life” but does not know what is going on under his nose. Justine Mitchell shows Yelena at a turning point, unyoking herself from dependence on men to confront a wider social reality. Emma Lowndes’ Liza is a fragile, Cassandra-like figure who belatedly responds to Paul Higgins’ baffled, long-suffering Boris. Lucy Black is excruciatingly funny as the neurotic Melaniya and Gerald Kyd lends Vageen a pretentious charlatanism, while Maggie McCarthy’s maternal nanny fusses around trying to enforce order in an increasingly chaotic household.