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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions