No matter how much the marketing team at the National pushes its £12 Travelex ticket deal in order to diversify audiences, watching a piece designed to ridicule the collective middle class in the Lyttelton Theatre is not a comfortable experience. Originally penned by Marxist sympathiser Maxim Gorky in 1905 and viewed as a companion piece to The Lower Depths, which placed a spotlight on the working classes of 1902, Children of the Sun depicts a cross section of the newly emerging bourgeoisie. In this new version by Andrew Upton, Director Howard Davies threatens to hold a mirror up to a contemporary middle class but, like the play’s ineffectual characters, this tragicomedy constantly speculates but rarely delivers.
While life and art battle over who is imitating whom, Set Designer Bunny Christie sets this production off to a promising start. Wielding the hammer of Communist iconography and modelling body language ripped straight out of Soviet graphic design, a worker throws his weight at the imposing brick wall that dominates the entire width of the stage. Upon such a grand space, our worker’s movements are simple, but littered with teasing cultural references to fin de siecle Russia, ultimately packing in quite a heavy message, and tricking us into thinking we know what’s coming next.
Using strong symbolism to evoke a Russia at the brink of revolution, Christie neatly delivers the context of the play in time for the misguided central characters to turn a blind eye to it. As the brashly illuminated wall drops to reveal the household of Protasov the chemist (played with a ditsy ineffectualness by Geoffrey Streatfield), a tangled community of sisters, brothers, lovers and spouses fabricate far-fetched solutions to societal problems that they lack the time and inclination to acknowledge. At the back of this newly exposed domesticity, the original brick wall is shown in reverse; our worker, no longer a symbol of the uprising poor, stops his angular gesturing and addresses his master.
After a while, it’s easy to adopt the middle class characters’ ignorance of the world outside. If we disregard Maggie McCarthy’s nanny and Florence Hall’s maid (it’s easy to do, so predictable are their performances) Upton’s adaptation pulls Gorky’s middle class into a more universal discussion. Initially, the cast’s unapologetic use of British accents baffles, but while the script and its delivery may be wickedly modern at times, there is an authenticity in this update. Indeed, Gorky’s original cast at the Moscow Art Theatre may not have proclaimed “I fink you’re so sexy” in brash Cockney tones, but they were instructed to mimic the colloquial working class expressions of their time. Upton’s version is as far from a literal translation as we are from Red Square, but his commitment to the contemporary vernacular foregrounds a concrete loyalty to Gorky’s ideas.
Some of the bourgeois characters pose as artists, others pose as scientists, but all join the directionless intellectual relay race that runs throughout this play. Not cast deep enough into their roles to be allegorical, and too fleeting in their interactions to be convincing, Upton’s characters all seem too fluffy to bear the weight of this satire. Occasionally we are permitted a glimpse at tragedy, but a dismissive “What are you on about?” prevents the spirit of debate from getting too tense. Equally, the comedy is as smug as an episode of My Family, using clumsy injections of hindsight to provoke a handful of self-satisfied chuckles. Children of the Sun may promise to take us close to the bone, but the jokes here are as self-congratulating as the social class the production sets out to attack, ultimately rendering the work the greatest victim of its own humour.
Children of the Sun is playing at National Theatre until Sunday 14 July. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.