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
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?

An enlightening finale for Don Draper

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Serious player: Aussie Guy Sebastian rehearses for the big show in Vienna

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable