Children of the Sun: The Russians keep on coming

The revival of a rare Maxim Gorky play and a new version of Chekhov's Platonov are further evidence of our love affair with the country's classic drama, says Paul Taylor

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 June

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?