The publicity for ‘Burnt by the Sun’ speaks of the Great Terror which took place in Russia towards the end of the 1930s – Stalin’s repression of all his enemies, real and imagined, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of executions, not to mention the wholesale transportation of Socially Harmful Elements to labour camps, where they were literally worked to death.
Yet the play – an adaptation by Peter Flannery of a screenplay by Nikita Mikhlkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov – is anything but grim. In its opening scenes, the family of General Kotov are about to take breakfast in their summer dacha when a holiday parade of pioneers (boy scouts with red kerchiefs, marching with musical instruments) causes them to tango about the verandah in their dressing gowns. The dancers are ‘the grannies’ – so termed by their insolent son-in-law, Kotov, who listens nonchalantly as they reminisce about the good old days, before the Revolution. This is a drama imbued with a sense of painful nostalgia, but he has a brutal question for them: if the old life meant so much to them, why did they not defend it?
Kotov (played by Ciarán Hinds with the sort of square-shouldered, sugar-sprinkled roughness that smokes a cigar with one hand whilst feeling his wife’s buttocks with the other) is Stalin’s right hand man. He has married Maroussia (the very beautiful, porcelain-skinned Michelle Dockery), who finds him coarse, but fascinating – or perhaps she had other reasons for accepting his suit. We long to know, especially since a stranger has turned up from the past, who clearly had a relationship with Maroussia which she does not care to acknowledge. The stranger, Mitia (Rory Kinnear) is part pianist, part storyteller. He can sing and tap dance and his face is full of barely veiled longing, but who is he and what does he want?
There is a sense in which the chameleon-like nature of the principal characters reflects the unspoken political situation; but they are so engrossing in their interactions that it is easy to forget what is to come. Music and song are further delightful distractions in Howard Davies’ production, which veers from the high comedy of open mouthed drunks and middle-aged virgins to the breathtakingly sinister: a reminder that the personal is political. We spend most of the evening laughing, or at least smiling. But since nothing and no one are quite what they seem, the contrasting horror of the final scenes comes as a real shock.
Only Mitya’s words should have prepared us. When he recalls the words of Maroussia’s dying father – ‘I have lived to see geese on trains,’ we suppose he meant to ridicule a system in which creatures who can fly are forcibly transported to a destination not of their choosing.
That there is much to ponder in the aftermath of the performance, is only part of the reason why this production is one of the best shows at the National this season.
BURNT BY THE SUN – National Theatre
Sue Webster . Courtesy of This Is London.