Review: Children Of The Sun (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 8 – Oct 25, 2014
Playwright: Maxim Gorky (adapted by Andrew Upton)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Valerie Bader, James Bell, Justine Clarke, Yure Covich, Jay Laga’aia, Jacqueline McKenzie, Hamish Michael, Julia Ohannessian, Chris Ryan, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone, Toby Truslove
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
In Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children Of The Sun, 12 characters of distinct and diverse personalities intermingle in the privileged Protasov household, each with their own sets of concerns and each holding world views that struggle to find cohesion and alliance. Written in 1905, but set 50 years earlier, Gorky’s play looks to the past in order that we may speak of the now. Created at a time of great political and social unrest, a fictional history was used to illustrate the disquiet of the day. The work is about the anxieties and uncertainties inherent in the process of revolution, and the troubling consequences of fragmentation in communities. In our age of technological modernity, we relate instinctively to its theme of individualistic narcissism, and the increasingly fracturing nature of our local and world affairs allows us to empathise with the writer’s angst and trepidation in the face of social upheaval.

The disharmony of relationships is strikingly enhanced in Upton’s version. Its farcical comedy is relentlessly witty and often surprisingly clever, but always subservient to the greater tension of unrest that gradually unfolds. The language we hear is modern, almost colloquially Australian, which not only makes for sharper punchlines, but also allows us to readily identify personality archetypes and status structures. The disconnect between the household’s apolitical characters and the political movement that intensifies on the outside is fascinating to observe. Upton’s dialogue portrays the insularity of daily life, with the characters unknowingly providing reverberations for a larger context. It is classic social commentary that seems immortal, because its necessity never seems to diminish.

Kip Williams’ marvelous direction of the piece works with all the nuances and philosophies of the script to deliver an irresistible production that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Every character is intriguing and authentic, and Williams injects in each a dimension of dignity, refusing to make convenient fools of anyone. Herein lies the poignancy of work. The range of personalities is diverse, and even though we are unable to identify with everyone, we recognise the humanity in all of them. The vulnerability that they display is familiar, which means that the danger they encounter rings true for us.

Williams achieves a deliciously precarious balance between comedy and drama, effectively vacillating between frivolity and severity throughout the production. It is an intensely engaging show that manipulates our responses almost at will. There is an unpredictability to its plot that takes us off the beaten track and rejects our expectations, but it always enthralls our senses. Its rhythm is perfectly orchestrated in collaboration with our fluctuating emotions, and we become utterly lost in all its trials and tribulations.

Giving the narrative an impressive clarity is its extremely colourful and dynamic cast, many of whom exhibit extraordinary theatrical abilities that look very much like genius. Helen Thomson gives an unforgettable performance as Melaniya, a blundering seductress whose desperation is matched only by her beauty. Thomson’s work is precise and studied, but her instinctive timing creates a deceptive sense of spontaneity. Hilarious, playful, and larger than life, her every entrance is commanding and powerful. Thomson finds comedy in unexpected places, making us laugh while leaving us stupefied at the magnitude of her talents. Even more flamboyant is Hamish Michael, who is delightfully hammy as the painter Dimitri. His humour is unfettered and extravagant, always keen to highlight the vacuous pretensions of his role. Michael relishes the opportunity to play jester, with a wildness to his performance that is certainly amusing, and absolutely suited to the grand scale of the venue.

Pavel is the childlike patriarch, whose devotion to science renders him feckless in all other areas. Toby Truslove embodies the character’s eccentricity perfectly. The actor is slightly betrayed by his youthful appearance but his use of voice and physicality is very well-considered. Truslove’s ability to aggrandise what is basically an introspective personality helps establish Pavel as the charming man who finds himself the object of two women’s affections. Pavel’s sister Liza is his opposite. She is a creature of intuition and emotion, whose ill health is a symbolic manifestation of all the worries she carries for the world. Actor Jacqueline McKenzie is sensitive, elegant and tremendously affecting in the role. She demonstrates excellent range and an acute intellect that carves out the most intricate character on this stage.

Production design is restrained but highly evocative. David Fleischer’s big revolving stage holds several minimal structures that demarcate spaces, but all are in full view for the duration. The aesthetic is modern, but its sentiment is traditional. Significant plot devices like rain and fire are introduced gently, without causing a distraction from the story. Costumes and props are beautifully coordinated, with a sense of historical accuracy. Time and space is manufactured efficiently with minimal fuss, but every moment looks harmonious and beautiful.

This production of Children Of The Sun gives theatre lovers everything their hearts desire. It entertains, educates and thrills us, and it gives us so much to admire in the talent and skills that it showcases, but it does not provide answers to its own pressing questions. It is a quietly controversial work that makes statements about community, equity and political action. It makes us recognise the importance of social advancement, but seeks not to be divisive. It leaves with us a plea for progress and perhaps a yearning for a new revolution, but it relies on our own benevolence and intelligence to find a way.