6/4/09, National (Lyttleton)
A perfectly decent, well-acted, well-crafted piece about the early days of Stalin's purges.
It might have made a bigger impact if I hadn't read Orlando Figes' The Whisperers, a huge and distressing book about memories of the purges. Among the victims of the terror were many Old Bolsheviks like this play's General Kotov, a civil war hero... and victims of another sort like his betrayer, Dimitri, an NKVD man sent abroad to spy for his country for 12 years then brought back and tasked with reeling in Kotov, the man who'd sent him away in the first place and then stolen his beloved. Dimitri stood for all those forced by circumstance to betray those they loved. At the end of the play he shoots himself.
The implausibility of Dimitri's career jarred somewhat. The Party didn't need to make it personal, and surely would not have bothered, preferring to send anonymous functionaries to arrest Kotov, who initially believes his war record and his closeness to Stalin afford him immunity from what's happening to others.
A very good, mercurial performance by Roy Kinnear as Dimitri: an actor who can make quite stagey lines sound natural. Ciaran Hinds equally strong as the General: Irish accent, bluff, no-nonsense manner, fierce drive and fierce temper (generally held in check among his wife's relatives, a collection of bourgeois layabouts straight out of Chekhov). Michelle Dockery a bit colourless as the love interest.
The set an exploded wooden dacha on the revolve: large verandah out front, music room at the back. The second scene takes place at the river bank during a festival, indicated by moving blocks of wooden fencing (close-packed uprights) into position in front of the dacha.
It was Chekhov largely without the jokes, and with the politics made much more explicit (the original was a Russian film of the 90s; this stage adaptation in English was by Peter Flannery, the man who gave us Our Friends in the North). Perhaps it's what Chekhov would have written himself if he'd lived through the purges.
An interesting range of reactions in the posts on the National's "talkback" site. Here's a few:
No sun lotion required. -WillBird (Thu 5 Mar 2009 23:06)
Very disappointing. No-one comes out of this well except perhaps Ciaran Hinds and the little girl who played his daughter. This seems to have divided opinion, with some dazzled by the set and applauding the acting of the West End's two rising stars, Michelle Dockery and Rory Kinnear (yes, you Mr Billington) but I'm sorry, that's where the problems started. The tedious revolving mechanism slowed up the action unnecessarily when much of it could have just been set on the balcony and the scene at the beach with the actors clinging to the edge of the stage looked ridiculous. Kinnear's Mitia is no-one's idea of the dashing hero (from the our seats he looked and sounded like William Hague) and the characterisation was just plain irritating, especially after the most cringe-worthy dance-off scene since "The Office". Rather pleased that the smug Mitia turned out to be the bad guy, but no great surprise. Dockery looked pretty but the character demanded more depth from perhaps an older actress. Worst of all Ciaran Hinds's Kotov didn't actually have anything to do, instead he looks impassively on behind a giant Stalin moustache as his houseful of pet ,self-pitying Chekhovian stereotypes whine on about the good old days when they could go to the opera "twice a week" and his young wife has a mini breakdown. The actual plot kicks in about 10 minutes before curtain, but by this time much of the audience had gone to sleep. It lacked intensity and a sense of a hot sticky summer that the script implied and the ending was cliched, gratuitous and designed to wake up the audience so they didn't miss the night-bus home. A wasted opportunity to bring something bold and cinematic to the stage and another dud after the muddled "Mrs Affleck".
Burnt by the Sun -Valerie Passmore (Mon 9 Mar 2009 12:27)
Comparing this with the film on which it is apparently based misses the point: the play should be judged in its own right and many like me will not know the film.
Criticisms I agree with which presumably are easily remedied are the distracting lights and obscuring balustrade. Aso identifying exactly who all the old biddies and others were.
Otherwise it was a marvellous imaginative staging and Rory K's performance especially very striking. Such talents: acting, singing and dancing!
It's new, has drama, comedy and pathos. Excellent
Re: burnt by the sun -kate beswick (Fri 6 Mar 2009 16:49)
There was nothing terribly wrong
with this production but there was
nothing new, exciting or revelatory
about it either. I kept asking
myself 'what was the point of this?
Burnt By the Sun is a great Russian
film, with stunning performances by
outstanding Russian actors. It is a
classic. What is to be gained or
added by doing an English version
(much watered down and heavily
underlined ) with English actors To
have the leading man made up to
look like Stalin was a bit over the
top - was it in case we didn't 'get
it?' The process of film gave the
story a lot of its power- to put it
on stage dumbed it down - for
examle, the scene by the lake was
eliminated, and ti's a key scene.
As I said, it was all OK but I was
left unchilled and unmoved. What
made the National Theatre think it
wouldl be a good idea to snaffle
such a Russian story, created for
another medium? Did they think they
could do ti better? The answer is
'no, they can't. They shouldl have
used the money to stage a new play
or a seldom seen classic, of any
country.If they wanted to do
something Russian, why not revive
something by, for example
Ostrovsky- too seldom seen here, or
stage a play by one of the present
day young Russian playwrites, of
whom there are many. Russian
theatre does not begin and end with
Burnt by the Sun -Martin H (Fri 6 Mar 2009 09:46)
A tremendous play, starting with echoes of Chekhov and Gorky, and developing into something distinctly more devious, and awful.
I do not understand most of the cavils -- I thought Howard Davies' direction was, as ever with him, exemplary.
Only one small criticism: I was not clear early one who all the people in the house were, or why they were there; only later did I gather this was a dacha and they were down for part of the summer.
But overall, a fine evening, with a gallery of splendid performances. And I loved the set and costumes -- it was worth the ticket just for those '30s swimsuits!