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Gorky validated, if improved

Keith Gallasch: STC, Children of the Sun

Hamish Michael, Justine Clarke, Jacqueline Mackenzie, Toby Truslove, Chris Ryan, Children of the Sun,  Sydney Theatre Company Hamish Michael, Justine Clarke, Jacqueline Mackenzie, Toby Truslove, Chris Ryan, Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company
photo Brett Boardman
In a short period, Sydney Chamber Opera has presented Mayakovsky (p42) and Sydney Theatre Company Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun (1905). A generation older than the poet Mayakovsky, Gorky was at various times harassed and gaoled (he wrote Children of the Sun in prison) for fomenting revolution with his plays. Both poet and playwright became key cultural figures in the Russian Revolution and both were dispirited by Stalinism. Mayakovsky suicided in 1929, Gorky died in 1935 of natural causes at the time Stalin’s Terror was escalating.

Gorky’s playwriting is commonly considered structurally ungainly but rich in social observation and deft characterisations. Belvoir’s 2011 production The Business (RT104, p 18), an updated adaptation by Jonathan Gavin of Gorky’s grimly comic Vassa Zheleznova (1911)—a favourite of Stalin who saw it many times, presumably enjoying the agonies of a bourgeois family in their act of self-destruction (and the enforced changes to the play in 1935 to suit his tastes)—retained the playwright’s essential virtues, not least his strong focus on women. Coming into his stage career in the wake of his friend Anton Chekhov was certainly not an advantage and he was lambasted by left and right for lacking subtlety or political solutions. Subsequently the blend of humour and high drama in his best plays has been recognised indeed as Chekhovian but with political intent and a voice all its own.

Andrew Upton’s adaptation (originally for the Royal National Theatre, London production 2013) and Kip Williams’ direction of Children of the Sun realise the comedy-drama dynamic right to the play’s bitter end, our emotions and allegiances tossed about and our sense of the inevitability of revolution—with a self-preoccupied intelligentsia indifferent to a superstitious and violent peasantry—confirmed. While adhering in good part to Gorky’s dialogue, texturing it lightly with contemporary touches and the odd four letter word (these alarmed the British but are deftly integrated), Upton has very cleverly re-shaped the play. A few minor characters are deleted or merged, providing a tighter sense of community and, more significantly, key exchanges (like the estate owner and chemical scientist Protasov’s admonition of the worker Yegor for beating his wife) are held off in order to more effectively delineate character and control plot momentum.

The largest change, and the most effective, comes in the play’s fourth act, partly making the climax sparer but also re-ordering it and adding a final image, quietly inherent in the original but here writ large—the physical and emotional collapse of Protasov, unable to comprehend the fact and extent of his losses, his property burned by rioters who think he has poisoned them to procure business for the local doctors (whom they execute) and of his wife, the spirited Yelena who yearns for an artist’s life and will leave him. The riot is offstage which means we don’t get to see her shoot a peasant (this scene had a frightened audience scrambling for the exits in the volatile climate of 1906) after trying her best to help the locals manage what is in fact a cholera outbreak. Gun in hand, she heads off with everyone else to do battle while Protasov lingers helplessly, curling into himself, the epitome of the landowning class-cum-intelligentsia blind to its failings. It’s a powerful ending, and certainly an improvement.

The production is mounted on a large revolve on which the house is segmented, so that when rotated we see large rooms and small private spaces but also the construction behind, adding an appropriate sense of fragility as well as an excellent depth of field for witnessing comings and goings and frequent wanted and unwanted encounters. As in Chekhov, entrances and exits in the production are very telling, and here often funny.

Humour is everywhere from the very beginning, with a buzzing, argumentative household, bossy servants, Protasov and Yelena uselessly insisting on quiet. Protasov’s admirer, the wealthy widow Melaniya, courts him disastrously—climaxing in a humiliating egg-throwing scene and a subsequent confession to Yelena. The pompous artist Vageen (who hilariously wields the act of portrait drawing like a weapon) courts Yelena who is in turn grateful for the friendship while he assumes she loves him. Yelena’s frustration deepens, but her dilemma is nowhere as deep as her sister’s. Lisa is a fragile Cassandra. Her gory visions of mob violence, inspired by newspapers and rumour, are more prophetic than paranoid. Everyone cares for her, if not really listening, including the bitterly cynical Boris, the estranged brother of Melaniya who realises to his astonishment that he is in love with her. Lisa’s own like-minded realisation comes too late with tragic consequences. This dark strand is tautly woven with the comic stand-offs, everyday crises (a maid resigns) and revelations (a marriage has run its course).

Kip Williams’ direction is precise, fluent and finely graded, his ensemble performing as one. Toby Truslove’s wonderfully realised Protasov is self-centred, easily distracted and unconsciously funny, his arrogance disguised by his apparent affability and the ease with which he avoids or moves on from clashes—a state of denial which will deal him a pathetic end. Justine Clarke judiciously delineates Yelena’s growing sense of herself, one of the family but moving beyond it. Helen Thomson’s Melaniya is hilariously naïve and subsequently sadly wise, another fine transformation. Jacqueline Mackenzie’s portrayal of Lisa is richly detailed—ailing, analytical but volatile, trapped and tragic, but then resolute. Chris Ryan, Valerie Bader, Hamish Michael, Yuri Govich, Jay Laga’aia and Contessa Treffone all bring subtleties and insights to their roles.

What is truly bracing about Children of the Sun, is that in an era of deracinated adaptations, Gorky’s breadth of vision has been sustained—with all the complexities of class, work, ideas, progress and ignorance and their stressful interplay. The play calls to mind our challenged intelligentsia (as neoliberalism sucks the air out of thought), women still fighting for equality and the widespread validation of ignorance—it’s not peasant ignorance about science that hinders us today, incredibly it’s wealthy, educated climate change denialists and parents refusing their children inoculation thereby putting others as risk. I left Children of the Sun in equal parts exhilarated—by the wit and wisdom of the play and its production—and depressed, mindful of the huge gap opening up between rich and poor in the West to which so many are blind.

Sydney Theatre Company, Children of the Sun, writer Maxim Gorky, adaptation Andrew Upton, director Kip Williams, designer David Fleischer, costumes Renee Mulder, lighting Damien Cooper, composer, sound design Max Lyandvert; Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 12 Sept-25 Oct

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 40

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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