Review: Burnt By the Sun

By John Nathan, March 5, 2009
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Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1

Michelle Dockery and Ciarán Hinds play a Soviet couple whose contented lives are threatened in Burnt by the Sun

Michelle Dockery and Ciarán Hinds play a Soviet couple whose contented lives are threatened in Burnt by the Sun

There was a spat in the run up to this production. The National Theatre received complaints about a flyer promoting Peter Flannery’s adaptation of the Oscar-winning movie of the same name. It drew a link between the terror of Stalin’s purges and “atrocities in Palestine”.

Whether this referred to atrocities committed by Israelis or Hamas was unclear. But in any event, it comes across as a laboured attempt to attach modern relevance to a mistimed production.

Howard Davies’s direction lulls us into a false sense of Chekovian familiarity. The rural setting is a dacha not far from Moscow, populated by the four generations of a family who are members of Russia’s arrogant educated classes. They sing in Italian, can speak French and stave off boredom by being disrespectful to the servants.

But the year is 1936, well into Stalin’s reign, and the family’s continued presence in the house is tolerated by Colonel Kotov (Ciarán Hinds), a hero of the revolution. He has married the beguiling Maroussia (Michelle Dockery) and is hitched to a contented world interrupted only by the occasional marching brass bands of communist child “pioneers” trumpeting the virtues of Stalin.

The play’s atmosphere has taken its cue from Nikita Mikhalkov’s film, which is all dappled sunlight and golden wheat fields. But it fails to find the equivalent dramatic punch when Kotov’s unassailable authority is diminished by the homecoming of Rory Kinnear’s charming Mitia — an agent of Stalinist terror.

Totalitarianism’s callous destruction of lives is the lesson, but one that was made much more effectively by the National’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.

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    Last updated: 2:45pm, March 11 2009