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
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).