Colonel Kotov, decorated hero of the Russian Revolution, is spending an idyllic summer in the country with his beloved young wife and family. But on one glorious sunny morning in 1936, his wife's former lover returns from a long and unexplained absence. Amidst a tangle of sexual jealousy, retribution and remorseless political backstabbing, Kotov feels the full, horrifying reach of Stalin's rule.
This one's a cracker. Based on a Russian/French movie that won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1994, Burnt By The Sun starts out like something by Chekhov and ends up as a gripping Stalinist thriller.
Those who admire Nikita Mikhalkov's superb picture may miss the rural location of a story set in stunning countryside near Moscow during an idyllic summer in 1936. What Peter Flannery's adaptation of the script offers instead is tauter dramatic tension and some of the finest ensemble acting on the London stage.
When the director Howard Davies is in top form, no one can better him at animating a large ensemble and creating a dramatic atmosphere in which comedy mingles with tension and despair. And these qualities, that so enlivened his outstanding earlier NT productions of Gorky's Philistines and O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, are once again in evidence in a virtuosic staging on the Lyttleton stage that combines a broad panoramic view with constantly telling detail.
The action is set in a large, dilapidated datcha, which in Vicki Mortimer's cunning, atmospheric design revolves to allow us to see the place from different perspectives.
As an extended family of characters spanning four generations take breakfast and bicker on the veranda, we might be in the World of the Cherry Orchard - indeed Flannery's script teasingly refers to it. But then comes news that Russian tanks are destroying the villagers' wheat field, and we realise life has changed.
Most of the characters look back fondly on easier, pre-revolutionary days. But the man who allows them to live in the lap of something approaching luxury is General Kotov, a hero of the Russian Revolution, who has married the daughter of the house, Maroussia, and now allows her family to live there on sufferance.
But then a mysterious stranger arrives, who reveals himself as Maroussia's former lover, who disappeared many years earlier. He seems an amiable and beguiling man, full of cheerfulness and tricks. But why has he returned? And what has he been doing during his long absence?
To answer these questions would be to ruin the play. Suffice it to say that the film is set in the early days of the Stalinist terror, and nothing is quite as it seems. The production brilliantly captures the simmering tension between the gnarled general and his younger, smoother rival, while the twists at the end reminded me of Le Carré at his best.
The show, complete with marching band, sinister secret policeman and young, uniformed Pioneers celebrating the splendours of Uncle Joe, creates a superb sense of place and time, and there are outstanding leading performances from Ciarán Hinds who movingly suggests the crusty general's deep love for his wife and young daughter; Michelle Dockery, who beauifully captures the pain and confusion of a woman torn between two men; and the superb Rory Kinnear, mixing wit, anguish and aggression as the mysterious visitor.
Funny, affecting and taut with suspense, Burnt By The Sun is a new play that already feels like a classic
Its Russian creators dedicated their 1994 film Burnt By The Sun to "all who were burnt by the Revolution", an honorific that applies to most of the characters Peter Flannery has so effectively transposed from screen to stage. There's the dedicated Stalinist unlucky enough to live in 1936, when the Terror is under way. There's the sensitive music-lover who has been forced into the ranks of the NKVD and committed soul-suicide. And there are, of course, the bourgeois remnants of Tsarism, clinging on to the old ways as best they may.
At first it looks as if the play belongs to these fossils. Outside, the Young Pioneers are celebrating Stalin's great balloon-and-airship project, while inside Vicki Mortimer's shabby-posh set of assorted grannies and aunts drink tea and chatter about the past. The effect is of The Cherry Orchard revisited, but now with the radical student Trofimov transformed into a hero of the revolution. At the centre of the Howard Davies' production is Ciarán Hinds' Kotov Red Army general, scourge of the Whites, and married to the daughter of the house, Maroussia, which is why he, a true believer, tolerates the twittering fogeys around him.
So how will a plot emerge from the Chekhovian atmospherics? Enter Rory Kinnear's Mitia, Maroussia's long-ago lover and now a man of mystery. Since he initially seems to be as different from Kotov as Puccini from Patton, there's tension in the air, presumably about sex and love. But then things darken in ways I can't fully reveal. The references to the show trials and the execution of Kamenev and Zinoviev become painfully relevant to this rural hideaway. It's as if Solzhenitsyn has elbowed his way into Uncle Vanya.
The acting is consistently fine, starting with Michelle Dockery as a Maroussia suppressing the "free spirit" attributed to her by Kinnear's Mitia, who himself begins as everybody's jokey friend yet is soon subtly suggesting the unease, the bitterness, the nihislism inside. And Hinds is very much the military philistine: effortlessly commanding, gruffly self-assured, and, as his wife says, maybe "the hardest man on the planet". With his black, bushy moustache he even looks like Stalin and, like the tyrant, warily observes others from the corner of the room.
The result is quite a lesson in the perils of complacency. A tough, confident man can bask in a ruler's favours one day, convinced that great ends justify the odd glitch in the means, and the next find his one and only weakness inexplicably used to destroy him. "Hello, new life," cried Trofimov as he exited from The Cherry Orchard in 1904. Well here's that new life in all its paranoia and cruelty.
Reach for the SPF 1950, comrade
Burnt By The Sun (Royal National Theatre) Verdict: Fine acting -- but not exactly revolutionary ****
STALIN'S purges were no picnic. I think we knew that already, but the National's latest effort reminds us.
It's all handsomely done with some fine acting and a lavish set (parts of which look faintly familiar from recent National productions -- perhaps they're recycling).
But in its main thrust, that Stalinism dehumanised Russians and turned them against one another, it is all rather on the obvious side.
General Kotov (Ciarán Hinds) is a hero of the revolution. The people both fear and love him. He thinks he is well in with Stalin, but in that he may be mistaken.
The play is set in and around Kotov's country house. He has a beautiful wife (Michelle Dockery), a gorgeous ten-year-old daughter (Holly Gibbs) and assorted in-laws who cluck and croon and drink and chatter in a post-Chekhov way. Tim McMullan, whose patched teddy bear face lends him superbly forlorn comic gifts, is on excellent form as a drying-out drunk. Stephanie Jacob ditto as the family's puddingish maid.
The whole thing trundles along entertainingly enough, the family scenes being done at faultless speed.
Mr Hinds is done up to look, confusingly, like Stalin. He makes Kotov initially a benevolent tyrant -- ill-shaven, tattoed, of peasant stock -- who sneers at the nostalgic bourgeoisie for not having fought to save their Tsarist privileges. He has a military man's bluntness, but when his wife's old boyfriend (Mr Kinnear) turns up after a decade's absence, we start to realise Kotov may not be quite what he seems.
Slowly things spiral, the battle for the wife's love possibly being a metaphor for the tussles over Mother Russia.
Mr Kinnear is as watchable as ever. Given that some warped old Commie historians in Hampstead are still apologists for Stalinism, it is good to have the National asserting what a monster Uncle Joe was.
This show is polished and has a certain luxuriance. But does it surprise us? It started life as a Russian screenplay and must have meant a great deal to people who had lived through Stalinism or whose parents did.
I suspect it will struggle to strike English audiences so intensely, the charting of political betrayal coming over as little more than inevitable.
Writer Peter Flannery brings a luminously tragic poignancy to his stage retelling of the Oscar-winning 1994 Russian film centring on the impact of Stalin's 1936 terror on the life of a retired fictional General Kotov and his family in the country.
As General Kotov, and looking a bit like Stalin himself, Ciaran Hinds commands the sun-drenched stage of designer Vicki Mortimer's perfectly realised dacha. At first the rough-hewn soldier, Hinds gradually infuses his performance with the genuine warmth and tenderness of a man of his time and utterly oblivious of the full horror about to be unleashed.
That comes in the unlikely form of returning long-lost family friend Mitia (Rory Kinnear), gaily reminiscing about the golden past and his former love for Kotov's wife Maroussia.
But things are not what they seem and Kinnear handles his character's ghastly transition superbly as the sinister reasons for his absence emerge. Leg often trembling, a smile always hovering on his lips, he never quite allows his audience to quite know until the very end what is and isn't real and just what frail fragment of humanity he has been able to hold on to.
This is unquestionably an impressive production of a genuinely chilling play. But there is perhaps one caveat - the women. The gaggle of elderly ladies tolerated by Kotov are little more than ciphers, an absent-minded and nostalgic chorus, yearning for happier times before the revolution. And as Maroussia, Michelle Dockery is allowed to do little more than vent her tear-stained rage and confusion as a helpless bystander at the savage march of history. But that, perhaps, is frightening enough.
In this week's edition of The Stage, Ciarán Hinds talks about returning to the London stage after an absence of 12 years during which he forged a successful film career. Now starring in Peter Flannery's adaptation of Burnt By The Sun at the National's Lyttleton, he tells us how he wanted to exercise his theatre muscles.
My London agent had been suggesting that it was time that I did a play here again, but Burnt by the Sun just came out of left field. What I enjoy most about the theatre, as opposed to most film, is the sense of a group of people, of an ensemble cooking up together...
When I did The Seafarer on Broadway, I was working with David Morse, another actor who'd been away from the stage for some time. We both knew that we'd have to find more energy than we'd needed working on film, but we both believed we'd have enough. We were wrong.
Directed by Howard Davies
Designed by Vicky Mortimer
Lighting Designed by Mark Henderson
Music by Ilona Sekacz
Choreographed by Scarlett Mackmin
Sound Designed by Christopher Shutt
|Serguei Petrovitch Kotov||Ciarán Hinds||Maroussia||Michelle Dockery|
|Dmitri (Mitia) Andreevitch||Rory Kinnear||Mokhova||Stephanie Jacob|
|Vsevolod||Duncan Bell||Olga||Pamela Merrick|
|Lidia Stepanovna||Rowena Cooper||Elena||Anna Carteret|
|Kolya||Stuart Martin||Andrushya||Michael Grady-Hall|
|Kirik||Tim McMullan||Truck Driver||Tony Turner|
|Blokhin||Roger Ringrose||Mironov||Colin Haigh|
|Aronin||Marcus Cunningham||Nadia||Skye Bennet, Holly Gibbs|
|The Tango Band||Ruth Elder, Richard Hart, Dan Jackson, Harry Hepple (singer)||Ensemble||Anne Kavanagh, Victoria Lennox, Charlotte Pyke|
Company/theatre: Royal National Theatre
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