Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Burnt by the Sun at the National
With his current role at the National, Rory Kinnear has been given a gift of a part. He plays Mitia, a charming and playful character, who is also highly enigmatic and a little sinister; a man of layers and hidden things, a wearer of masks and disguises.
Mitia was once in love with Maroussia, the daughter of his music teacher, but one night he left, vanished without a word, and has not been seen since. Now, twelve years later, he has returned to a world not dissimilar to the one he left.
Though the music teacher is now dead, his family still live as they once did, a gentle and rather Chekhovian existence, sipping tea and singing songs in their summer dacha.
They are allowed to continue in this gentle facsimile of pre-Revolutionary life because Maroussia has, in the years since Mitia left, married Colonel Kotov, a celebrated Bolshevik hero who – literally – has a direct line to Stalin.
So while the family waft around their airy home in linens and silks, it is only the stream of MASH style loudspeaker announcements (“Comrades…”) and the passing troupes of beaming, red-sashed Pioneers, that show that life beyond the dacha has changed so completely.
Kotov meanwhile lumbers round the place in his grey flannel breeches looking bear-like and out of place. The family sniff about his rough habits – he prefers to use the old fashioned steam house rather than the bathroom – but there is clearly an unvoiced pact between them, a harmony which Mitia’s return threatens to undermine in the most brutal fashion.
Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar winning Russian film has been adapted for the stage by Peter Flannery and as with many screen-to-stage transfers there have been a number of inevitable and necessary changes. Flannery’s version (based on the screenplay by Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov) makes explicit many of the things that are merely danced around in the film. At one point, as the family bemoan the things they miss from their old way of living, Kotov asks them outright: “why didn’t you fight for it?”
The film filtered the complex tangle of adult relationships through the eyes of Kotov and Maroussia’s precocious young daughter Nadia. Here, while Nadia is still a delightful presence, the emotions of the adult characters are pitched closer to the surface, they are more exposed.
Michelle Dockery is quietly impressive as the stricken Maroussia suddenly torn between the man she once adored and her current husband, who she also cares deeply about. Ciaran Hinds, however, feels oddly underpowered as Kotov. He is suitably gruff but there are too few glimpses of the feared and revered leader of men or, for that matter, the man who charmed Maroussia. Rory Kinnear, of course, benefits from the showier role but though clearly revelling in his character’s propensity for dressing up, playing the piano and tap dancing, he never overdoes it. He maintains a careful balance and there is always the sense of pain and loss under the veneer of playfulness, an aura of danger about him. When the truth behind his long absence is revealed it is very chilling indeed.
The supporting cast are also very strong, particularly Stehanie Jacob as Mokhova the eternally virginal maid, prone to howling on the stairs when upset.
Howard Davies’ production works well, gently and divertingly building to a tense and moving conclusion. It is powerfully played and compelling and yet there are the usual niggles when translating something that worked so well in one medium to another; there are a number of key images and scenes that can’t be replicated on stage, so the production doesn’t attempt to. The balloons bearing a huge image of Stalin’s face, a central motif in the film, simultaneously unsettling and slightly absurd, is here reduced to a throwaway reference. The atmosphere of terror on the horizon, of a world about to be overturned, is not so pervading.
But, taken on its own terms the production works well, it is initially funny and charming, before successfully shifting to something much darker in the later scenes, as a larger tide washes away this small golden world forever.
Reviewed for musicOMH
I once again coaxed my mother out of the house for this one and am rather glad I did. As a girl she once was a beaming, red-sashed Pioneer and that, combined with pre-show and mid-show wine and standing next to the "pretty one from the History Boys" at the bar, made it one of her preferred theatre experiences of this or any other year I expect.