Someone should remind playwright Peter Flannery that drama is like real life but with the boring bits taken out. Last night’s preview of his adaptation of the movie Burnt By The Sun (press night tonight), broke an enjoyable run of great shows at the National Theatre which includes Steppenwolf’s August: Osage County, and Vanessa Redgrave winning me over after years of indifference in The Year of Magical Thinking.
The NT website promises us: “Amidst a tangle of sexual jealousy, retribution and remorseless political backstabbing, Kotov feels the full, horrifying reach of Stalin’s rule.” Terrific! Just what I wanted to see. Unfortunately, the end product looks like the outline before it was fleshed out and turned into a proper script, a disappointment considering this was written by the author of one of the best British TV dramas ever, Our Friends In The North.
Originally a hit Russian film made in 1994, Burnt By The Sun won a raft of awards including Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (I would have seen it by now, only Certain Someone taped two episodes of Angel over the videotape lent to us by a lefty friend, not that I’m using this opportunity to remind him of his crimes or anything, oh no, not me.)
Set in 1936 as Stalin’s Great Purge is getting under way, General Kotov (Ciarån Hinds), a hero of the revolution, is a big powerful Uncle Joe-loving family man on his summer holidays in his seaside dacha. Surrounded by his beautiful wife, Maroussia (Michelle Dockery) and her eccentric family, the remains of the old society, plus female servant Mochova and little daughter, Nadia, his idyllic world is disrupted by the return of Dimitri/Mitia (Rory Kinnear), Maroussia’s childhood sweetheart.
After much dense wordage and hotchka-potchka Russophiling (I’m wondering if Russian theatre represents Brits so stereotypically), it suddenly transpires, post-interval, that Mitia has an unpleasant mission he must carry out.
The story, such as it is, didn’t start until the second half, the (very long) first half consisting of a lengthy introduction of the characters with almost zero foreshadowing of what was to come. (I’d’ve said ‘the second act’, except there wasn’t a second act: just a first act split in two by an intermission.) Everything emerges as flat exposition, very little of it through drama. No suspense or build-up to the end, just a lot of thesping around an old piano and then The Thing happens.
The old people in Maroussia’s family sit around like cyphers, reminiscing and bemoaning a world gone to the dogs. The first signs of Stalin’s Great Purge are spotted in newspaper reports of the showtrials where “confessions” are declared to be the basis of justice, not evidence. But this thread, which I was looking forward to seeing developed in the course of the play, is lost in the love-lives of one-dimensional characters for whom I cared very little.
Appealing to middle-classes everywhere, BBTS shares a nostalgia for the good old days ven ve danced and played music and sang and the house was alive with culture and Chekovian loveliness before the philistines came and took it all away, pass the vodka. You’d think this would be a chance to have a look at the contrary needs of two contending classes, especially as we may be entering our own pre-revolutionary period if Britain suffers a depression, but no. The workers and their case are nowhere to be seen. You don’t have to agree with the Russian revolution, but at least give us an idea that you understand the dynamics of it.
I don’t believe, for example, that Mochova would explain the drill of defending themselves against “imperialist” attack by poison gas in such sneery knowing terms, a neon light invitation for the audience to laugh smugly at commie paranoia. Teenage Pioneers in gasmasks are supposed to mark an absurd lack of sophistication, so unlike our own dear Boy Scouts and Home Guard. Yet this was 1936, with memories of 22 foreign armies trying to snuff out the fledgling revolution, and not long before the horrors of World War II.
Perhaps the best moment, the only one that made me laugh, was when the clash of two worlds was played out in duelling feet (a strange motif that turns up elsewhere in the show, I’ve just realised): Mitia’s tap-dance, hampered only by the actor’s huge Sideshow Bob feet, versus an olde Russian army boot-slapping routine from Kotov. Kotov won.
One of the worst moments (there were several vying for top spot) was where, in a fit of what passes for passionate jealousy in this limp production, Kotov tries to shag Maroussia al fresco and the entire audience steeled itself for the ancient British theatre tradition of “groundbreaking sex”. Ooh, how transgressive. Thankfully, he only gets as far as stripping her top half and she’s wearing a flesh coloured bra underneath. Phew! They could have put me off sex for the longest time.
Then there’s the idiot plot crammed into the dying minutes of the production, when Mochova’s admirer stumbles upon Kotov’s arrest and, in a moment to rival Tippi Hedren under avian attack thinking, “I wonder what’s in the attic?” and charging in like she didn’t know the title of the movie was The Birds, he gets what every movie moron deserves.
Ciaran Hinds as General Kotov heads a strong cast
Burnt By The Sun is almost as bad as the (award-winning) Tom Stoppard trilogy at the NT, The Coast of Utopia, for which I saved up and spent all day almost in tears with boredom but refused to let it beat me and watched every tortuous minute until the end just in case something interesting happened. It didn't. The only thing I remember about it, apart from its stupendous failure to enlighten anyone as to the attraction of Marxism, was the presence of posh anarchist Bakunin in Marx’s home, and someone dressed up as a marmalade cat, a hallucinatory image which makes the play sound way better than it was.
Why is it that our National Theatre can produce no deep insightful examination of class politics, of the Marxism that affected, not only the world, but the generation now running things? The only working-class character, Mochova, is presented as a stupid middle-aged sex-starved buffoon against the luminous beauty of the distressed gentry. The NT’s excellent production of Galileo a while back contained some mind-boggling howlers — a working-class assistant with regional accent, whose child version is played by a posh kid with a Rank starlet accent, plus other revelations of antiquated class, race and gender assumptions peculiar to the theatre producers rather than Galileo and his contemporaries. Hey, you guys running the culture, this is your era. If you can’t work out what was/is happening, who can?
As usual, the designers walk away with the honours. The BBTS set is stunning — Kotov’s dacha centre-stage on a rotating platform, surrounded by bleakly beautiful forest, hauntingly lit.
If the original film even halfway deserves its reputation, then it also deserves an infinitely better adaptation than Flannery provides here. If it doesn’t, then I may have to apologise to Certain Someone tonight while we rewatch the episode in which Angel is turned into a muppet.
Spreaking of muppets ... HOI! Otchka-trotchka-motchka HOI! Otchka-trotchka ...
UPDATE: Neil Clark runs with the baton.
I'm in a minority of one.
Michael Coveney, What's On Stage and in the Independent:
Michael Billington, Guardian:
Charles Spencer, Telegraph:
Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard
Mark Espiner just about resists full lampoonery in the Guardian