NT Lyttelton, London

Theatre review: Children of the Sun - Calm down, dear, it's just a revolution

3.00

A revival of Maxim Gorky's century-old bourgeois shocker may be a bit of a damp squib, but it ends with a bang

At the Moscow premiere of Maxim Gorky's Children of the Sun in 1905, the audience started to panic as they watched the last act. When a marauding mob was heard offstage, approaching fast, such confused terror swept through the stalls that the cast had to explain that this was the play's climax – not the building being stormed.

That year had been one of nerve-wracking turmoil, a precursor to the 1917 Revolution. The gunning down of protesting workers, by the Tsar's troops, sparked widespread strikes and riots. Gorky himself had been jailed as a potentially incendiary radical, though he'd carried on writing in prison.

Now revived by Howard Davies at the National Theatre, Children of the Sun centres on Geoffrey Streatfeild's tweedy, bearded Pavel. He is a chemistry professor of once revered intellectual stock, but with his head in the sand, socially. Beavering away in his home lab – tinkering with Bunsen burners and fuming concoctions – he envisages a scientifically brighter future. Yet he's blind to the trouble brewing outside his door.

He doesn't want to countenance the frustrations of his sidelined wife or the uneducated townsfolk's fermenting hostility. When struck by a cholera epidemic, they demonise and blame him for poisoning the water.

Davies has, fascinatingly, staged many early 20th-century Russian classics at the NT, not least Gorky's Philistines. This one proves a slightly damp squib, however, even though it contrives to end on a frightening bang.

Streatfeild isn't fully convincing as an avid scientist, and nor is that scientist's home. Though stunningly designed by Bunny Christie, with industrial-scale, sliding glass doors, Pavel's house is low on the status-indicating trappings of the intelligentsia (which Gorky specified). The writing seems uneven too, with fractionally milked set speeches and patchy satire. Andrew Upton's new English version occasionally swerves between floweriness and anachronistic-sounding expletives. Nonetheless, the overlaps with Chekhov are striking. Maggie McCarthy is very entertaining as Pavel's huffing old Nanny. Justine Mitchell shines as his mettlesome spouse. Emma Lowndes, portraying his highly strung sister, turns into a sort of foreboding Cassandra, while Paul Higgins is outstandingly tender as her unrequited admirer. With 400 seats at every performance costing only £12 – courtesy of the Travelex season – this is worth a look.

Regrettably, the same cannot be said of #aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Hampstead Theatre, London *), a play by Howard Brenton about the anti-authoritarian Chinese artist who, apparently, despite the obvious danger to himself, has given it his approval.

Essentially, it is an account of his nightmarish 81 days of interrogation and imprisonment in 2011, after which he was unexpectedly released on condition that he did not use the internet, speak to foreign reporters, or further criticise the Chinese government. He subsequently gave a detailed account of his incarceration to British arts journalist Barnaby Martin, on which Brenton draws.

So, James McDonald's staging ought to be tense. But, in the main, it's just shockingly dull and theatrically dire. This is all the more woeful given how gripping Brenton made Charles II's incarceration and trial in his historical biodrama 55 Days.

Actor Benedict Wong is the burly spitting image of Ai Weiwei. And he does end strongly, with an epilogue in which he prepares to smash a Han Dynasty vase and compares classical aesthetics to the Communist Party's code of enforced conformity. The evening additionally offers a few surreal and startling moments. Sitting handcuffed to a chair, pinioned between stony-faced guards, Wong finds his repetitive grilling suddenly replaced by questions about noodle recipes or a whisper of support.

Still, it feels as if Brenton is straitjacketed by Martin's transcripts. Weiwei's defence of his art too often lacks lucidity. The pacing is hopelessly sluggish and the set is lumbering. Meant to look like an art installation, a giant crate is endlessly shunted in circles under surveillance cameras.

Back at the NT, the Cottlesloe is being refurbished, so an alternative space has sprung up in front of the main entrance. The Shed looks like a timber-clad, fiery orange mini-Battersea Power Station. The interior is snug and trendily industrial, with exposed girders, and the programming is enticingly adventurous. So it's a pity the opening show isn't mind-blowing.

Tanya Ronder's new play, Table (NT Shed, London ***), developed through workshops, circles around the titular piece of furniture, tracing the stories behind its stains and scars. This takes us through one family's thorny history, in Victorian Lichfield, colonial Africa, a 1970s commune, and multicultural London today.

Rufus Norris's thrust-stage production has a quiet serenity, with soft, almost ghostly lighting, as well as some electrifying delivery of hymns and folk songs. His admirable cast, led by Paul Hilton, don't make a meal of playing both adults and children. However, the family tree is occasionally confusing, mawkishness creeps in and the dialogue is thin.

 

'Children of the Sun' (020-7452 3000) to 14 Jul; '#aiww: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei' (020-7722 9301) to 18 May; 'Table' (020-7452 3000) to 18 May

Critic's Choice

The Old Vic's production of Michael Frayn's top farce, Noises Off, is at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle (Mon to Sat), and touring (to 27 Jul), with Neil Pearson as the harrassed director of a failing farce. Last chance to catch Mariah Gale, Matthew Marsh and Jamie Parker's quietly exquisite performances in Proof, David Auburn's tragicomedy about a maths genius, instability, and grief, at London's Menier Chocolate Factory (to Sat).

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

    RuPaul interview

    The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head