Children of the Sun

Children of the Sun
By Maxim Gorky, in a new version by Andrew Upton. Sydney Theatre Company. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. 8 September - 25 October, 2014

Andrew Upton’s very modern adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun gives life to a 1905 Russian middle class family on brink of revolutionary catastrophe and yet also to any family today of indulged adults blind to their futures in this century. 

The language and odd swearing jars occasionally with period but Upton’s overall theatrical success is to deliver historical truth as told through the belated wisdom and ongoing ignorance of our own age.  Gorky wrote the play in exasperation at the failure of the 1905 revolution; we know, at least, that eventually revolution did, for better and worse, wipe away these essentially meaningless lives.

Upton at least had an out-of-town tryout in 2013 when the National Theatre of Great Britain staged his adaptation with a far heftier cast; he then adapted it further for director Kip Williams and his STC cast here of just twelve. 

Costume designer Renee Mulder shows a keen eye for attractive period detail and David Fleischer’s revolving set keeps the dynamic spinning, spotlighting the corners and chaotic hallways of this once proud aristocratic home.  

Life here still revolves around the experiments and childish ego of chemist Protasov (Toby Truslove) but the village workers now blame him for spreading disease and discontent.  Protasov’s ignored wife (Justine Clarke) dreams of a requited love and flirts with the impossibly vain artist Vageen (Hamish Michael). Protasov’s depressive sister (a wonderful Jacqueline McKenzie) can see the political truth threatening beyond the gates but madly lets go of the local vet (Chris Ryan), and his desperate love for her.

Everyone talks and pontificates about love, arts and other quests; but no one listens; the play’s first half is a torrent of non sequiturs.  Any humour in this mad Gorky satire of the impotent is often muted, and certainly compromised by the sadness prevailing in so many characters. 

Upton’s words and Williams’ uniformly strong ensemble however underscores the truth and lightness necessary for some laughter. Helen Thomson, for example, is a comic standout as the rich widow infatuated with the boyish chemist and struggling, vainly, against her own stupidities in the hope of being better.  

Our emotional engagement is finally total when the actions of the second half roll through and the real world bursts past the gates. A masterfully directed production, true to 1905 Russia and yet heartfelt and bursting with political life. 

Martin Portus

Images: Justine Clarke, Jacqueline McKenzie and Toby Truslove; Contessa Treffone; Helen Thomson and Toby Truslove, & iJacqueline McKenzie, Justine Clarke, Valerie Bader, Julia Ohannessian, Toby Truslove, Jay Laga'aia, James Bell, Chris Ryan, Yure Covich in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun © Brett Boardman 2014.

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