Burnt By The Sun – April 2009

8/10

By Peter Flannery from the screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Tuesday 21st April 2009

This was a very interesting play and an excellent production. I’ve seen a number of pieces which comment on Stalin’s impact on the Soviet Union but this play gives a different perspective, bridging the gap between Chekov’s soon-to-be-ousted upper classes and the thuggish period of the mass cleansings and executions.

The set for this play was a beautifully detailed veranda and adjacent rooms in a dacha, with tall tree trunks round the sides and back. The dacha rotates to change the scene, and at one point two sets of wooden railings are brought round to screen the house while the action takes place on the front of the stage. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the costumes, but they all seemed fine to me.

The dacha is occupied (I don’t know if ‘owned’ is the right word for these times) by General Kotov, a hero of the Revolution who has married a member of the old upper classes and chosen to live in her family’s dacha. He’s generous enough to allow the remaining members of her family to stay there too, so we have Maroussia’s mother and grandmother, her uncle and the grandmother’s friend all living there as well as Kotov, his wife Maroussia and their daughter Nadia. The only servant we see is Mokhova, whom the older generation tease mercilessly when they’re not reminiscing about the old days and complaining at what they have to put with now. Mind you, it’s the uncle, Vsevolod, who notices the coming storm when he reads a story in the paper about how “confessions are the source of all justice”. Nobody wants to debate the issue with him and he’s constantly distracted by lecherous thoughts, so if it wasn’t for our knowledge of what’s to come I can see that many people at the time would have accepted such an announcement without comment.

A former friend of the family, Mitia, arrives back after many years away. It’s clear there was a relationship between him and Maroussia and at first I thought he’d come back to get her to run off with him. He’s been spending a lot of time abroad, playing the piano and singing to make ends meet apparently, but now he’s back and he and Kotov are immediately at odds. The battle is quite subtle at first, then escalates through storytelling and Mitia taking Maroussia away for private conversations. Finally it emerges that Mitia is in fact an agent of the NKVD come to arrest Kotov and garner evidence to be used at his trial (though why they need evidence when he’s going to confess….). The rest of the family have gone to the zoo, a promised treat for Nadia, and after roughing Kotov up a bit (he resisted arrest – honestly, he did) and shooting a lorry driver who came along looking for Mokhova, they drag Kotov off leaving Mitia behind on the veranda. He uses Kotov’s own pistol to play a losing game of Russian roulette with himself, with the lights going out as the shot is fired.

It’s a powerful ending and a pretty powerful play. Light at the start, it darkens down through all the revelations until the final act of desperation snuffs it out completely. The characters are well drawn and well acted, and there’s a lot of humour as well as emotion. I so wanted Mokhova to get together with the driver, who came to the house originally for directions as he was lost. They seemed so well suited, but he turned up in the wrong place at the wrong time and death was inevitable. The old biddies with their twittering, grumbling and opera singing were very reminiscent of Chekovian characters. It was surprising to see how well they’d survived the initial stages of the Revolution, but then there would have been lots of them and only so much time in the day for executions.

Mitia is an interesting contrast to the other, raincoat clad NKVD men. He’s bright, articulate and full of stories and song, which gives him excellent camouflage in spying out the Russian exiles who might be a danger to Stalin. He clearly feels the loss of everything he cared about when he first left the area, initially to fight in the Revolution and then sent away to spy by none other than Kotov. It was Mitia’s protest that he had to get back to see Maroussia that led Kotov to investigate this woman, fall in love with and marry her, so Mitia’s grudge is easy to understand. His despair at what he has to do to keep his bosses happy is evident, and his final act completely at one with his personality and situation. Rory Kinnear’s performance was superb in this role, showing off his many talents to perfection.

Holding all of this together is Ciaran Hinds’ Kotov. A man of the people, he’s proud of having achieved so much in his life entirely on merit. He’s hard but not completely ruthless; believing that the victory has been won, he’s inclined to relax and enjoy life a little. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the danger he’s in immediately although he’s certainly suspicious of Mitia’s arrival. But then, he knows the sort of work Mitia’s been doing, so no wonder. He comes across as a loving father and a generally decent man, though prepared to take tough decisions when he has to. It’s sad to see him brought down by Stalin’s paranoia but that’s how it was. Anyone who was popular or successful was a threat and had to go.

There was a fair bit of humour during the play but I’ll just mention two bits here. The first happened in the opening scene when Kotov is roused by neighbours complaining that there are tanks in the fields of wheat. Kotov uses his rank to get them removed and the change in attitude of the two young soldiers is very entertaining. At first they’re throwing their weight around, thinking they’re dealing with peasants (or comrade peasants) but when they realise who they’re talking to, they turn into simpering schoolgirls and are only too happy to put him through to their commander. In relating Kotov’s instructions, one soldier translates “piss off” as “go away”, which also got a good laugh.

The second occasion was the singing near the end when the family is heading off to the zoo. The NKVD men have arrived, and to provide a cover story Mitia introduces them as his colleagues. The family assume that means they’re musicians with the Moscow Philharmonic, and from the expressions on their faces these blokes wouldn’t know one end of a bassoon from another. Still, they end up joining in a chorus or two of Evening Bells, and one chap even sounds quite good. It’s a nice bit of humour before the unpleasant ending.

Although I’ve mentioned a few of the actors by name, all the performances were excellent. I liked the set very much, although the veranda rail was in the way for a lot of the breakfast scene, cutting off the actors’ mouths, which was a bit irritating. It was well worth seeing, and I hope to catch it again sometime.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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