Went to see Burnt by the Sun at the Lyttelton last night. Renowned Russian movie turned into a stage adaptation by Howard Davies. The story is one of lost love and treachery at the height of Stalin’s purge, and a grim tale it is too. General Kotov is a bigwig in the party apparatus, complete with dacha in the country. His wife is entirely too lovely and too young for him, but they have a precocious little daughter and seem content enough. A whole posse of mothers, grandmothers and other extended family spend their summer holidays at the dacha, thanks to the General’s generosity. In the middle of this soporific idyll (and the first half of the play IS dead slow) enters Mitia, a blast from the past and not in a good way. Mitia was Maroussia’s beloved before he disappeared inexplicably; now he has come back after 12 years to stir the pot. After the interval, the plot slowly uncoils with gut-wrenching horror – Mitia is here at the dacha at the behest of Stalin himself. Kotov is to be extinguished in the purge. The final scenes are almost unbearable in their evocation of terror and wanton, random violence.
What did I make of it all? Evidently the second half of the play was far more gripping than the first. That however could be attributed to the nature of the source material. But I have some other gripes. Firstly, Howard Davies’ literal approach to theatre-making is wearing a bit thin on me. The cheap attempts at realism – realistic sets, realistic props, etc – there’s no artifice in his approach. Unadventurous I think is one way to describe this brand of theatre. Secondly, the cast. I think Ciaran Hinds and Michelle Dockery were excellent choices in the role of the earthy Kotov and his porcelain wife. However, as far as I am concerned Rory Kinnear, fine actor though he is, was fatally miscast. He is entirely too youthful, too callow to pull off the role of Mitia convincingly. Who should have been played with more scars, more pathos, the weight of a dark history. I don’t think Rory was the actor for that.
Other cutesy touches – the beach scene, the gas masks, the Pioneers paraphernalia – you could either praise as earnest, or dismiss as earnest. What is undeniable is the power of the last half hour of the piece. The tension rises, the horror multiplies until one can hardly bear it. When Mitia says to his henchmen “Clear up this mess”, the gunshot that kills Mokhova’s old beau is so sudden, so casual in its finality, that the whole audience jumped.
All in all, it was a competent but not transforming night at the theatre. There was a young blonde girl dressed all in white in the row ahead and a more annoying bitch you never did see. People like this should have their names put down on the banned list of every theatre. Her phone went off twice and she insisted on talking, whispering, crumpling packets, and generally raising all hell and pissing the fuck out of everyone around her. Thank God they exited before long. I had to throw in my dig – ‘don’t come back’. The girl who played Kotov’s daughter was crying at the curtain call, which was really rather sweet – this was the final performance and it must have got to her, poor thing. Lastly, I saw old Trevor McDonald in the bar during the interval, hair all white, sitting on his own.
P.S. The other recent purge play at the national – Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is about to be revived next year. I think I’ll go see it again, seeing as I slept through much of it first time round.
P.P.S. Thanks to Sanjana for helping me rediscover this blog. This is my first post here in a year and a half!