By now we know what to expect from an Andrew Upton adaptation of a Russian play – brisk, overlapping dialogue with anachronistic turns of phrase and use of four-letter words. With the Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya (2010), this approach, in combination with Támas Ascher’s brilliant production, worked superbly to blow away the miasma of gloom and torpor that usually blankets anglophone Chekhov. It was considerably less successful when the STC turned to Mikhail Bulgakov’s wonderful play The Days of the Turbins (2011) and the novel on which it was based, The White Guard. Here the loss of Bulgakov’s elegant, elliptical, slyly humorous style was compounded with a messy production and a cast that was, on average, a decade too old for their roles. With Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun, the results are mixed. The modern language adds immediacy but it is jarring to hear a refined sheltered woman of the turn of the last century use the word ‘fuck’.
Gorky’s admiration for Chekhov stopped just this side of idolatry. ‘I believe that with Anton Pavlovitch,’ he wrote in his Reminiscences (1920), ‘all visitors felt a desire to be simpler, more sincere; in short to be more themselves.’ In its depiction of clueless, childish members of the intelligentsia overwhelmed by forces beyond their control, Children of the Sun is one of Gorky’s most Chekhovian works. But if Chekhov had some empathy for his charming ineffectual characters, Gorky has none for his. Holding the liberal intelligentsia and the peasantry in equal contempt, Gorky firmly believed Russia’s future belonged to the urban proletariat.
This was not a view that made him popular with the tottering Romanov government, and Children of the Sun was written in great haste while Gorky was in prison accused of fomenting revolution after the massacre of innocent petitioners by Nicholas II’s Cossacks on Bloody Sunday (22 January 1905). The authorities allowed it to be performed to a highly selective audience, but so tense were the times that at the end of the play, when the offstage sounds of the townspeople coming to storm the Protasov house were heard, the audience panicked, thinking it was a real demonstration. Gorky himself considered the piece a failure, but it was presented with great success in Germany and later throughout Europe.
The Protasov household is in decline. Once the leading landholders in the neighbourhood, the family has shrunk to Pavel, an amateur scientist determined to uncover the secrets of the universe, his neglected wife, Yelena, and his neurasthenic sister Liza. They are joined by Pavel’s friend Boris, the local vet, who loves Liza, his sister Melanya who is obsessed with the obsessive Pavel, and Vageen, a poseur and ‘artist’ who fancies himself in love with Yelena. Watching from the sidelines are the Protasov’s old nanny, on whom they all depend, Yegor, the brutal wife-bashing handyman, and Feema the maid, who has to make up her mind as to what she is willing to submit to in order to raise herself from the working class. As they circle each other, an outbreak of cholera occurs in the town; the superstitious peasants blame it on Pavel’s experiments, which they see as witchcraft.
‘If Chekhov had some empathy for his charming ineffectual characters, Gorky has none for his’
Gorky set the play in the 1860s, but Upton and the director, Kip Williams, have updated it to the time in which it was written and have added, apropos of nothing, an odd little speech about the coming of the motor car. Williams and his designer, David Fleischer, make good use of the revolve, and the play is well and fluidly staged. The problems come with the piece itself and with some odd casting choices.
As a writer, Gorky was nothing if not didactic, and his characters often come across more as mouthpieces than as fully developed people. It is up to the director and actors to add depth, which is otherwise lacking. Here, this was only partially achieved.
The women come off best. As Nanny, Valerie Bader bustles around efficiently. Contessa Treffone makes a pert Feema, but she also shows us the girl’s vulnerability as she ponders whether to escape from her lowly position into a loveless marriage. As Melanya, Helen Thomson does not so much teeter on the edge of caricature as dive headlong in; but she is very funny. The two who succeed best in developing their characters are Justine Clarke as Yelena and Jacqueline McKenzie as Liza. They manage to anchor the play emotionally, particularly as it moves to its dark conclusion.
The men are more problematic. Toby Truslove as Pavel and Chris Ryan as Boris are simply too young for their roles. Truslove handles his and the play’s major speech well, but he is unbelievable as the husband of Clarke and brother of McKenzie. Hamish Michael blusters well as Vageen, but his characterisation remains a surface one. As the brutal Yegor, Yure Covich is more successful, but it says something about Gorky’s writing that Upton was able to combine three characters from the original play into one generic violent peasant.
Children of the Sun may not have the subtlety of a Chekhov play, but it is a vibrant portrait of Russia on the verge of revolutionary anarchy.
Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun, adapted by Andrew Upton from the play by Maxim Gorky, is playing at the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre until 25 October 2014. Performance attended 12 September.