We are gluttons for – or perhaps that should be gourmands of – classic Russian drama in this country. So the National Theatre's revival of a comparative rarity – Gorky's 1905 play Children of the Sun – at the Lyttelton feels particularly mouthwatering.
Our appetite for fare from this repertoire has been illustrated of late by the resourceful ways our theatre has responded to the frustrating fact that the roster of mature Chekhov masterpieces comprises only four works (from The Seagull to The Cherry Orchard). Long gone is that period when the English mistook his plays for elegant, sepia-tinted studies, as if he were writing a variant of this country's own myth of that suspended golden Edwardian summer before the Great War and the incipient unravelling of Empire. We acknowledge now that the shadows of a quite different sort of future fall ominously across Chekhov's country estates and that the listlessness of his cut-off characters seethes with the kind of inverted, desperate rage for life that, perhaps to this day, would not be considered quite comme il faut in Godalming
Nonetheless, we can't get enough of Chekhov. One possible solution to the problem, exemplified recently by Longing, the stage debut at Hampstead of novelist William Boyd, is to concoct posthumous quasi-additions to the canon by splicing together material from the Russian genius's short stories.
The danger with this sort of exercise, though, is that trademark Chekhovian features – from landed gentry poised on the verge of bankruptcy to the trope of the forever-postponed proposal of marriage – will feel at once over-familiar and strangely phantasmal.
Alternatively, attention can be turned to the earlier work. At the National, both Michael Frayn in Wild Honey (1984) and Trevor Griffiths in Piano (1990) fashioned strong neo-Chekhovian plays from an unfinished manuscript found in the safe deposit of a Moscow bank years after the author's death, that follows the fate of Platonov, an aimless, frustrated, accidentally lady-killing schoolmaster who foreshadows fully-fledged Chekhov types by operating like an electric eel in the barrel of dead provincial fish to which he has been consigned.
And in the past few years, with much less need for tinkering, Chekhov's first complete play Ivanov, written in 1887 when he was 27, has revealed itself as an extraordinary extended insight into the harrowing farce that is clinical depression. Demonstrating that the young Russian dramatist was way ahead of Beckett in realising that there is nothing funnier than unhappiness, the play has drawn superlative performances in the eponymous role of the provincial hand-me-down Hamlet, from Ralph Fiennes in the David Hare/Jonathan Kent version at the Almeida in 1997 and from Kenneth Branagh in the 2008 Tom Stoppard/Michael Grandage revival for the Donmar in the West End.
At the same time, we have had an increasing chance to savour the wide-ranging riches of the classic Russian repertoire which, on these shores, effectively stretches from Pushkin (1799-1837) and his Boris Godunov (recently given a business-suited Putin-era twist by the RSC) to oppressed authors of the Stalinist period, of whom the quintessential figure is Bulgakov, who died in 1940.
The grotesque 19th-century comedies of Alexander Ostrovsky about the corrupt and predatory nouveaux riches struck a powerful chord in the Thatcherite 1980s and early 1990s when A Family Affair was championed by Cheek by Jowl and Richard Jones unveiled his stunningly idiosyncratic vision of Too Clever By Half (starring Alex Jennings) at The Old Vic.
Howard Davies is arguably the best British director of the Russian repertoire in terms of both depth and range. At the National, in collaboration with Andrew Upton (husband of Cate Blanchett) as translator/adaptor, has staged material sourced from either side of that drastic watershed of the Revolution of 1917.
He has directed The Cherry Orchard and Maxim Gorky's first play Philistines (written in 1901). He's masterminded a stage version by Peter Flannery of Nikita Mikhalov's Oscar-winning 1994 movie Burnt by the Sun, set at the dacha of a Red Army hero in 1936 during which the imminence of Stalin's Great Terror becomes more chillingly apparent. And he brilliantly staged Bulgakov's 1926 play The White Guard, which focuses on a family of Tsarist supporters in Kiev in 1918-19 during a time of tragi-farcical post-Revolutionary turmoil.
Now the team of Davies, Upton and designer Bunny Christie are back with this revival of Children of the Sun, a play that Gorky wrote while in prison in the wake of Bloody Sunday (22 January 1905) when a peaceful, unarmed demonstration intent on presenting a petition to Tsar Nicholas was fired on by the Imperial Guard, with many fatalities.
The play forcefully conveys both Gorky's disappointment with the rising educated classes and his wariness of the masses. Focusing on the household of scientist Protasov, who believes that the key to a better world lies in chemistry, the play suggests that the new intelligentsia, for all their urgent talk, are out of touch with political reality. And when a cholera epidemic breaks out, popular superstition decides that its source is the scientists and doctors trying to create lucrative work for themselves. A medic gets bashed to death. Found strung up is the vet, Boris Chepurnoi, whose disillusion with any utopian project ("Struggling to love people? That's what causes all the confusion... Welcome to the human race...It's horrible in here") can sound almost healthy when set against talk of how, in the interests of creating a better future for mankind in two or three hundred more years, the sensitivities of the living are of next to no importance.
For a period, Gorky and Chekhov were fellow writers for the Moscow Art Theatre, founded in 1898, until Chekhov's death in 1904. Their relationship was one of qualified mutual admiration (in a humorous letter to him about his short stories, Chekhov remarked of his overbearing tone that, "You are like someone in a theatre audience expressing his delight in so exuberant a fashion that neither he nor anyone else can hear the play).
And there are indisputable thematic links between their dramatic works. In Summerfolk (1904), Lopakhin's vision in The Cherry Orchard (premiered earlier that year) of a dacha community of holiday homes as the seedbed for a better life is contradicted in Gorky's portrayal of Russia's new industrial classes on vacation and treating their surroundings with the casual irresponsibility of tourists.
"Chekhov is a sophisticated, delicate liberal with an ironic view of life. Gorky is a passionate left-winger who had had a rough, tough working-class upbringing," Howard Davies says, adding that "Chekhov is a lacemaker; it's as if Gorky is going to make a pair of jeans."
In Three Sisters, Vershinin and Tusenbach "philosophise" about the future in the spirit of an evening's recreation, as if playing chess. Gorky makes his characters talk in deadly earnest ("They identify with their arguments") which is why the fact that these people are only cutting-edge manque is so infuriating. Davies points to the chaotic pace of change in this period between the first Tsarist reforms and the straitjacket of Bolshevik ideology. Among the newly educated, 47 per cent of students going to university were women with no social opportunities afterwards. Hence perhaps the mental imbalance of Liza, the chemist's sister in Children of the Sun.
As will be evident, the National Theatre has been exemplary in giving us is richly imaginative access to this repertoire. It even amplified the impact of Davies's production of The White Guard by programming Collaborators, a new play by John Hodge that took us inside the troubled mind of the great dissident author Bulgakov – his Faustian pact with Stalin becoming a nightmarishly comic fantasy of co-authorship on plays.
The National is very far from having a monopoly here, as is clear from the latest exercise in extending the Chekhov canon. Opening at the Belgrade in Coventry this month, then moving to the Arcola Theatre in London, there's a new attempt to impose order on the Platonov material. It is called Sons Without Fathers and billed as "funnier, more brutal, and more wildly passionate than the Chekhov we have come to know". Like Children of the Sun it serves fresh notice of the English theatre's insatiable passion for the Russian repertoire.
'Children of the Sun', National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000; nationaltheatre.org.uk) to 14 July; 'Sons Without Fathers', Belgrade, Coventry (024 7655 3055) to 4 May, then at Arcola, London E8 (020 7503 1646 ) 8 May to 15 JuneReuse content