Burnt by the Sun, NT Lyttelton, London
Dancing at Lughnasa, Old Vic, London
As You Like It, Curve, Leicester

1936: The Great Terror looms over a Russian family gathering, while in Ireland, old certainties are crumbling

Everyone is dancing on the verandah of the Kotovs' dacha, to the strains of a passing military band. It's a national holiday and the morning light slants softly through Act One of Burnt by the Sun. This portrait of Russia in 1936, in a new adaptation by Peter Flannery, is staged by Howard Davies with an exquisite and enthralling blend of Indian-summer serenity and intensifying menace.

You might think this was a forgotten masterpiece by Chekhov. The willowy lady of the house, Michelle Dockery's Maroussia, grew up here among the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, and her relations are still in situ. Idling at breakfast in their silk dressing gowns, they reminisce about nights at the opera, read out snippets from the newspaper, and tease their spinster-housekeeper. They themselves allude to The Cherry Orchard, yet times have moved on, dangerously.

For this is Stalin's USSR, with the Great Terror only just over the horizon, and Maroussia has married a peasant-born Red Army general. Ciaran Hinds' grizzled Sergei – with bristly Stalinesque moustache – sits in a corner like a hulking bear and listens to his in-laws' bourgeois nostalgia, giving it short shrift.

We gather, from Pravda, that trials have begun in Moscow to purge the so-called enemies of communism, and then suddenly Rory Kinnear's Mitia – the great love of Maroussia's youth –reappears after 12 mysterious years away. He acts the joker, saying he has merely been working as a cabaret pianist in Europe, but he is fraught and seems hell-bent on winning back his beloved.

I won't reveal the play's searing plot twists, as many theatre-goers won't have seen Nikita Mikhalkov's original 1990s film (co-scripted with Rustam Ibragimbekov). Suffice to say, the love triangle is enmeshed in political manoeuvres, and this piece disturbingly exposes how people, faced with social upheavals, can become treacherous lost souls, shockingly changed by regimes that obliterate their old certainties and hopes.

Davies's production is beautifully fluid, the dacha revolving slowly so you follow the characters from room to room. A few glitches arise, both in play and performance. Mitia tells an overlong allegorical fairy tale; Dockery excessively foregrounds her shock at his homecoming, jittering a vodka bottle against a glass. Overall, though, the ensemble acting is splendid, including Duncan Bell as a decadent, buttock-eyeing lawyer and Tim McMullan as a chirpy fool. There is also wonderful naturalistic detailing, and humour woven into the encroaching tragedy. See this.

Maybe Dancing at Lughnasa suffers by comparison. Brian Friel's memory play is set during that same summer of '36 in rural Donegal, with lower political stakes. Yet this dramatist, dubbed Ireland's Chekhov, is also remembering a lost way of life, encapsulated by a family of six siblings who are going to be shattered by industrialisation as well as by the divisive shedding of strict Catholic codes.

Michelle Fairley's Kate finds her prudish authority challenged by her more freewheeling sisters, and their brother, Finbar Lynch's Jack, is a lapsed missionary who has returned from Africa with a shameless admiration for the pagan festivities to which his houseboy introduced him.

Lynch is amusingly skew-whiff, retaining a stiff-backed pontifical manner while discombobulated by malaria, and all the sibling tensions are nicely focused in Anna Mackmin's intimate in-the-round staging – complete with kitchen sink and cast-iron stove, flagstones and encircling green grass.

There's one joyously wild moment when all five sisters whirl to Irish music on the wireless, and Niamh Cusack is particularly vibrant as the high-spirited, anxiety-suppressing Maggie. That said, having everyone address an invisible 10-year-old boy is awkward, and the romance between Andrea Corr's Chris and Jo Stone-Fewings's caddish Gerry is both gooey and grating. This production, though enjoyable, doesn't quite take off.

Lastly, Tim Supple's multicultural As You Like It proves a big disappointment after his bewitching Indian Midsummer Night's Dream. His young actors at the Leicester Curve are performing this one in English, with often clueless verse-speaking. The clown, Touchstone, can't even remember his gags. In fact, Supple has stripped Shakespeare's pastoral comedy of virtually all its wit.

Tracy Ifeachor rightly brings out a damaged and angry side to this heroine who's peculiarly excited by wrestling, but she subsequently lacks any charm, playing the moody dominatrix in her cross-dressed wooing games. Justin Avoth, though incisively intelligent, is encouraged to go over the top too, playing Jaques as a manic depressive who slathers himself in stag's blood.

Composer Nitin Sawhney and Ashwin Srinivasan's accompanying score features a haunting flute, like a woodland bird, but also an inordinate amount of mournful metallic twanging like mice blundering around inside a grand piano. Still, anything to drown out the dialogue, eh?



Burnt by the Sun (020-7452 3000) to 21 Apr; Dancing at Lughnasa (0870 060 6628) to 9 May; As You Like It (0116 242 3595) to 28 Mar

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition