Review: Children of the Sun at the Lyttelton Theatre

In these dark times of economic crisis and bloody bankers getting away with mind-boggling bonuses, what better choice of evening entertainment than a great story about some good old-fashioned revol

In these dark times of economic crisis and bloody bankers getting away with mind-boggling bonuses, what better choice of evening entertainment than a great story about some good old-fashioned revolution? Instead of marching to the barricades, we -the modern 99%- seem to prefer this leisurely type of reflecting on our problems above any kind of actual action any time. So if you’ve already had your fair share of the French Revolution with Tom Hooper’s recent film version of Les Misérables why not check out Andrew Upton’s new version of Gorky’s play Children of the Sun at The Lyttelton Theatre?

A bit of background information may be required here, for although Gorky was a prominent Russian journalist, writer and activist living on the eve of the Russian Revolution, not many people will recognize his name anymore. In fact, the name Gorky was a pseudonym – literally meaning ‘bitter’, which reflected his anger about life in Russia and his determination to speak the bitter truth about it. He actually wrote Children of the Sun during his brief imprisonment for revolutionary activity in 1905. To me, this was enough to expect nothing less than some grandiose and sweepingly display of big masses of angry people storming the palaces of the rich.

…clearly, I was wrong.

The play is set entirely in the peaceful house of Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), an idealistic chemist, who is constantly engaged in experiments to perfect mankind. But while the subject of chemistry constantly sets him of into passionate speeches about the true meaning of life and the universe, he seems oblivious to the people and problems that surround him.

Protasov isn’t the only one with this problem, all the people that surround him seem to be equally motivated by their own individual self-centered obsessions. So, not quite the play of angry Bolsheviks marching the streets that I expected to see, instead of that a very long sequence of idle discussions about art, science, life and the cosmos.

But in the end, all this infatuated navel-gazing leaves the bunch of spoiled middle-class Russians unable to attend to the real problem that are going on just beyond the scope of their own privileged lives. For just outside the walls of the big house, local peasants are suffering from a cholera epidemic (Obviously a metaphor for the real unrest of the time). In all their desperation, they blame Protasov’s chemistry experiments for poisoning them, and riots begin to close in on the gates of the chemist’s tranquil premises.

Although Children of the Sun may not be the most spectacular depiction of the Russian Revolution, Gorky’s play ingeniously illustrates the subtle evils of the individualistic tendency to either dwell on one’s own idle problems or to boldly contemplate the bigger picture, but in the meantime disregard the actual world around you.

Not one of the characters is actually dislikeable. In fact, their social shortcomings are all eerily familiar. ‘Let’s talk about this’ is a statement that can be found on about every other page of Andrew Upton’s script. The pre-revolution Russians repeatedly decide that all their problems can be solved if only they think and talk about them hard enough. At times, this overly humanistic approach to conflict makes it feel as if they’ve walked straight out of a modern lifestyle magazine.

It actually started to feel increasingly uncomfortable to watch this tableau of self-regarding intellectuals on stage, when slowly but surely it started to occur to me that we, as the audience, might in fact be looking at a mirrored image of ourselves.

In an awfully similar way as the ignorant people on stage, it seems these days we have all lost sense of the real world around us. In this age of psychotherapy, new-age spirituality and self-help books, we all have become more or less narcissistic creatures, obsessed with endlessly reflecting on own feelings as well as the world around us. Just like Protasov and his friends, we have somehow become detached from reality.

The very fact that we are sitting in a theatre to watch some people act out a play about the Russian Revolution, while our luxurious world of Capitalism is crumbling all around us, shows us that we are no less ignorant than the characters we are watching. We still try to indulge ourselves in art, or search for some big truths or understanding of our feeble situation, completely unable to deal with the real problems that are facing us.

In the end, Children of the Sun provides just the kind of big sweeping distraction of day-to-day life that it is preaching against, which makes it’s message even more bitter.

Well worth watching – if for no other reason than to wake yourselves up a bit!


Children of the Sun | Lyttelton Theatre, London | Until 14 July | Box Office: 020 7452 3000