Friday 27 February 2009

Burnt By The Sun, National Theatre review: bum-aching torture but don't blame Stalin

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


K. said...

Hi, MM. I linked to you via Renegade Eye. How was Ciaran Hinds? I've enjoyed his work ever since his excellent turn as Julius Caesar in Rome.

Last year, I was lucky enough to see Patrick Stewart's Macbeth, which was set to great effect in Stalinist Russia. It was the best theater I've ever seen.

Hope to see you at Citizen K.

Madam Miaow said...

Hi K,

I should have mentioned in the review that all the actors were great.

Ciaran Hinds is an attractive geezer even with a middle-aged paunch. I just wish he was given better lines and more to do considering he's supposed to be the protagonist.

There was a lot of standing/sitting still between delivering lines, as if the characters had no life independent of the text.

I'd forgotten Hinds was Caesar. I really liked Rome. Watched it in several binges on DVD.

I look forward to reading Citizen K.

K. said...

I've watched Rome a couple of times myself. It's addictive. Thanks for dropping by Citizen K.; I look forward to your comments and to reading more of Madame Miaow.

MMFAN said...

WARNING: OFF-TOPIC Don't know where else to post this.

Hi, MM

I just read your poems and thought - WOW - How much talent does a girl need? And what better way to multitask a boring pair of pyjamas?

I just read the entire transcript of the radio 4 Reith Lecture and must congratulate you on managing to get a few (roughly 13) lines installed in between the stuffed jackets’ waffle. Did the men’s attire smell of mothballs? And somebody suggested a boycott?? There was a militant amidst that refined group?

I wonder if you will be invited to Reith Lecture 2009. If not, you must persist in your endeavours to get more than a foot in the door. Tell them there was a clear case of unfair and untimely closure of a lecture and you wanted to say more, a lot, lot more.

Anonymous said...

I was contemplating seeing this play and, maybe not now. Think I will stick with the cinema at the mo'.

Madam Miaow said...

Thanks MM FAN for checking out the Wreath Lecture poem.

Re Burt, I just realised another reason it doesn't work in dramatic terms: stasis.

General Kotov is passive. He takes one action at the beginning — to get the planes and tanks out of the local cornfields — which may or may not set the ensuing events rolling.

But then he does nothing. There is no device that allows him to take action against antagonistic forces. You don't see this character emptying his guts/soul/mind onstage.

If he senses that Mitia is a danger then the protagonist must take action to overcome his jeopardy. He doesn't. There's just a bit of snarling and horn-locking.

If he doesn't realise that Mitia presents a danger then Kotov spends the bulk of the play in blissful ignorance and the story hasn't begun.

I would have presented Kotov with his dilemma at an early stage and then found ways in which he could try to win out. That's the story that we don't see played out. The script is a situation, not a drama where protagonist and antagonist slug it out in any way, which it needs in order to justify the climax.

Madam Miaow said...

Hi Louise,

Sometimes you learn as much from productions that don't work as you do from the successes.

Shame that England People Very Nice (currently on at the NT and coming under heavy fire) also reveals stale old assumptions from the mindset running the place.

We're seeing Death and the King's Horseman under the NT £10 Travelex offer. Wanna come?

Madam Miaow said...

Just read the Reith Lecture transcript, MMFAN. Thanks so much for finding it. I'd forgotten how much of a bum's rush Sue gave me. And she didn't even allow the other Chinese woman to have a reply from the Prof.

I'd say there's a bit of an unconscious dismissal of anything we have to say being demonstrated here.

I've added the link to my Wreath Lecture post. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

"We're seeing Death and the King's Horseman under the NT £10 Travelex offer. Wanna come?"

Sounds good, when?

Unknown said...

"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."

Er, no. I think you have your goodies and baddies confused.

Madam Miaow said...

"Er, no. I think you have your goodies and baddies confused."

But my irony's spot on.

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