It had been a Sunday Matinee performance at the Lyttelton, and as I paused halfway across Waterloo Bridge to take the early evening air I found that I was still physically shaking from the impact.
When Maxim Gorky’s play had its 1905 Moscow premiere the audience began to flee their seats in terror during the closing scene, in which the townspeople invade the Protasov household. Political unrest was running at such a pitch that they were in fear of an uprising and they believed that the theatre was under attack.
It seems that director Howard Davies wanted to recreate the same degree of horror for a comfortable modern London audience and I would say he certainly achieves this in his utterly terrifying, incendiary conclusion to this new adaptation of Children of the Sun. So much so that it took a few hours for me to fully recollect the excellent drama that had gone before it.
At the play’s opening we were faced by a solid brick wall filling the proscenium, with Roman, the Labourer, trying to mend a sticking gate. The wall descends into the stage to reveal Bunny Christie’s splendidly detailed set design. Here is the heart of Pavel Protasov’s house, a kitchen into which his chemical experiments appear to have overspilled from the laboratory, housed in something like a conservatory stage left. Upstage we see through huge glazed doors into the yard beyond and the same brick wall seen from the inside.
Something else that is overspilling is the residue from Protasov’s experiments, which has been leaking from the house’s septic tank and polluting the town beyond, much to the growing displeasure of the townspeople, who are now blaming him for the onset of a cholera epidemic.
Distracting him are Nanny, an old family retainer, and Protasov’s neurotic sister Liza. They urge him to challenge the local blacksmith Yegor, who has been beating his wife, but Protasov is more interested in getting Yegor to line the tank with copper.
Protasov, played by Geoffrey Streatfield, manages to remain oblivious to almost everything around him unless it concerns his experiments. His wife Yelena (Justine Mitchell) is becoming weary of her husband’s lack of interest and is becoming more drawn to Vageen, a local artist (Gerald Kyd). His Sister Liza (Emma Lowndes) is heading for a major breakdown and refuses the advances of the Vet, Boris (Paul Higgins). Meanwhile Boris’s sister Melaniya (Lucy Black) is intent on seducing Protasov himself, but he appears almost wilfully unaware of her feelings. When she says she will do anything for him he just asks her to supply him daily with fresh eggs from her hens.
The cast are all excellent and although the piece could very much centre around Streatfield’s Protasov he gives a very generous performance which allows the other characters equal standing, while Howard Davies helps to wring a good deal of humour from the text. Especially striking are the three strong female roles of Yelena, Liza and Milaniya, who carry most of the narrative.
Andrew Upton’s new English version of the text is generally very convincing, although some rather modern sounding usage of expletives occasionally sounds a little clunky.
At 2¾ hours a piece like this could easily drag, but the pace was maintained exceptionally well and there was no fear of this at all. The gradual build-up of tensions between the characters, and the sense of ensuing menace from the increasingly angry mob outside hold the audience through to the sudden acceleration of the plot in its closing pages.
Completed with lighting by Neil Austin and a score from Dominic Muldowney this is a very stylish and satisfying piece of theatre.
The final denouement quite literally takes the breath away, but beware - if you sit in the first four or five rows, it may singe your eyebrows...
Children of the Sun runs at the Lyttelton Theatre until 14th July 2013