Written in 1905 by the renowned and prolific Russian writer Maxim Gorky, this adaptation of 'Children of the Sun' is by Andrew Upton who has previously adapted another of Gorky's plays, 'The Philistines' which was staged at the National Theatre back in 2007.
Maxim Gorky was a political activist and an opponent of the Tsarist regime, so was frequently arrested for his views. He apparently wrote the bulk of this play while he was in prison during 1905, and it was not until much later in that year that the play was permitted to be produced at the Moscow Art Theatre. Though it is set during a cholera epidemic of 1862, the play largely refers to events which occurred in Russia around 1905.
The story revolves around an idealistic scientist called Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfield). A visionary who rightly predicts that in a hundred years' time life would be created in test tubes, Protasov is nevertheless totally oblivious of what is happening both in his own home and in the wider community around him. He seems to have no understanding of financial matters and cares little for money, even though he and his family seem to live a reasonably comfortable life.
Protasov's sister, Lisa, is frail and has some kind of psychological illness. She is continually pestered by the bombastic and domineering family nanny (Maggie McCarthy) to take her milk and 'drops'. But Lisa is the only member of the family who seems to recognise that a time-bomb is ticking away in the wider community. Boris, a local vet, is enamoured with Lisa but she rejects his amorous advances until it is too late. Boris's sister, Melaniya, is besotted with Protasov and offers him all her money to build a new laboratory. And Protasov's wife spends most of her time with an artist called Vageen who seems to find artistic inspiration in almost any situation.
Protasov seems to have little time for his experiments as he is faced with constant interruptions. However, he arranges for a copper tank to be constructed on his land in which he stores waste chemicals. When cholera strikes the local population, they think that they are being poisoned by the scientist as his storage tank has been leaking and is polluting the local water supply.
The climx of the play is explosive and not a little surprising. I won't spoil the ending for you, but it is brilliantly executed. There are also some fine performances in Howard Davies's well-realised production. In particular, Lucy Black's exceptional and hilarious Melaniya is a woman completely infatuated with Protasov. Later in the play, she admits that she has not read his books, but has “licked them” and describes Protasov as a “throbbing beacon”. I also enjoyed Paul Higgins as Boris who feels that fate is against him at every turn, and Florence Hall is well-cast as a young maid who is willing to sell herself to the highest bidder.
If you are wondering about the title, it comes from Protasov's view that humanity depends more on the sun than on God. He tells us that we are 'born of the sun' and that the 'sun runs in our veins' – an argument that is difficult to counter given our reliance on the flaming orb at the centre of our universe.
Maxim Gorky rightly predicted the significance and influence of science and there are parallels with current economic conditions which give it considerable relevance. However, I could not quite believe that an intelligent man like Protasov could be so completely unaware of conditions in the local community, even if he is the kind of man who has his head in the clouds. Nevertheless, there is a rich blend of humour, tension and well-defined characters in a well-crafted production that turns out to be both absorbing and entertaining.
"Andrew Upton’s new translation seems excessively slangy and anachronistic for the period, but there is no mistaking its energy, and the play grips throughout.
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Although the characters’ interactions seem trivial for much of the first two acts, there is a note of volatility even in the most banal moments — a sense of something brewing...[Andrew] Upton’s version of the text is layered and fresh.
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"A richly rewarding evening with a literally explosive climax."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Although the work is no masterpiece, Howard Davies's production and Andrew Upton's new translation prove it's a fascinating document of its time.
Michael Billington for Guardian