Sydney Theatre Company (STC) and Colonial Trust First State Global Asset Management presents, CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by Maxim Gorky, in a new version by Andrew Upton, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 17 September - 18 October.
I did not have a good time with this production of CHILDREN OF THE SUN, at the Drama Theatre. It seemed to me to be more a play adapted from a Feydeau classic, than a play by Gorky. I can't decipher who is responsible, The Adaptor: Andrew Upton, or the Director, Kip Williams.
The best things were the look of the show: The Set Design, by David Fleischer. Especially, the Costume Design, by Renee Mulder. The Lighting Design, by Damien Cooper. This element of the production, the look, the image, is the element that the Director, Kip Williams, generally, is good at (sort of). Visual concept is his strength. Most else is subservient to that. It's a kind of Installation art with moving figures.
The only actor, for me, that survived the Directorial guidance was the amazing Justine Clarke, playing Yelena.
All else, a relative disaster.
I was going bonkers in my seat.
Read on, if you want.
It has taken six weeks to write and I do tend to rave on a bit. I'm sorry. It is only an expression of appreciative passion
"BONKERS" - Macquarie Dictionary (the Aussie one) = CRAZY. Oxford Dictionary (the Pommy one) = MAD; CRAZY.
During the Sydney Theatre Company's (STC) production of CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Andrew Upton, under commission, from the Royal National Theatre, London, in 2013, which has been further adapted by Andrew Upton for the STC - for reasons of economics, I presume, for despite the large grant that the STC company receives to support the Performing Artists on the stages, and the HUGE administration staff in their offices, the STC, under the Artistic Direction of Andrew Upton, to give the Sydney audience the opportunity to have this play, his latest playwriting, says he had to reduce 14 important roles (16 roles in the original) down to 12 - several of the characters cry out something like, "They are going bonkers." or "I am going bonkers." Well, during this production, Directed by Kip Williams, in the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, from my F Row seat, centre, I wanted to shout "I am going bonkers. You are making me f..king bonkers" (another vocab choice by the adaptor, Mr Upton, for a few of the characters, under stress, during the play's scenarios). "Help me!! Help me!!!", I internalised, not wanting to be rude, a disturbance. I was being driven CRAZY, MAD, BONKERS, by this production of CHILDREN OF THE SUN.
It seemed to me that I was watching a production of a Gorky play as if it was one of the early Chekhov one act vaudeville- sketch-cartoon-exagerrations, such as THE PROPOSAL, or THE BEAR (1888-9). There is a note in the program notes about the brief relationship between Gorky and Chekhov, but as writers their core intentions, are as different as chalk is to cheese. And so, although Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekhov knew each other, personally (briefly), their writing styles and objectives were very different, indeed. True, as another program essay, Becoming Gorky: Story Teller, Playwright, Activist, by Cynthia Marsh, tells us:
They were in conversation and correspondence during 1900 while Chekhov was writIng THREE SISTERS and Gorky was working on his first two plays. As a result, their plays engaged in a dialogue on the stage of the MAT (Moscow Art Theatre). Chekhov took some of Gorky's ideas to task in THREE SISTERS (1901). He then responded to the answers Gorky gave in THE LOWER DEPTHS (1902), in his own final play THE CHERRY ORCHARD of 1904. Gorky's SUMMERFOLK, later in 1904, begins where Chekhov finishes. I believe the style of the writing comes from two different urges. One was dominated with gentle, humanist, ironic observation, that is the Chekhov; the other by blatant Marxist Social Realism, with a deliberate political agenda, that is the Gorky. In fact Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko in his memoir "My Life in the Russian Theatre" notes that the first production of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN, in St Petersburg, "was unequivocally satirical, with little sympathy for the character(s)" and was unanimously condemned. . And, this seems to be the playing tone taken by Mr Williams, flaunted for us, in this present production for the STC. Nemirovitch-Dantchenko elaborates:
However much the events of 1905 (Bloody Sunday) might have hardened (Gorky's) views, Gorky's initial conception of Protasov (for instance) was far more sympathetic. Originally, he planned to write a play called 'The Astronomer' in collaboration with Leonid Andreev (another Russian writer of the period.) It owed its inspiration to the words of the German astronomer, Herman Klein (1884-1914) : "When Raphael was painting his Sistine Madonna, when Newton was contemplating the law of gravity, when Spinoza was writing his Ethics and Goethe his Faust, the sun was at work on all of them. All of us, geniuses and mere mortals, strong and weak, emperors and beggars, all of us are children of the sun." 
Protasov was conceived to be played as a visionary akin to other heroes in the MAT repertoire of the time, with the subtle heroics of Stockman from Ibsen's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (1882) or Astrov, in UNCLE VANYA." Not, as both Mr Upton and Mr Williams seem to believe, that the children of the sun are "a group of over-indulged kidults." That Protassov is a 'kidult'!? Gorky had much more regard for mankind and saw them, all, as individuals pursuing their idealistic and/or needful passions, under the sun, that nurtures/blinds us all, all equally.
So, I thought I was going BONKERS, in the Opera House.
Alexi Maximovich Peshkov was born in 1868 into a family with a small cloth-dying business, who had a prior history as barge-towers on the Volga river. Unlike Chekhov, who was born in 1860, into a bourgeois family whose father was a grocer, and whose antecedents had been serfs on the land - they had bought their freedom. In 1879, Maxim became an orphan and was brought up by a violently abusive grandfather, and doting grandmother. Unlike Anton, who had a violent father but a loving mother, and siblings: a devoted sister (Masha) and two brothers. Both men had life confrontations: in 1887, Maxim attempted suicide, with a gun. In 1885-6 Anton was diagnosed with tuberculosis - he virtually, kept it a secret. Maxim spent 5 years trudging through the lower world of the Russian Empire, taking on many varied jobs. Unlike Anton who graduated from university as a doctor. Maxim became a journalist for regional newspapers, reporting on the inequities of Russian life from the bottom strata of society, graduating to a collection of ESSAYS AND STORIES (1898), which he wrote less as an aesthetic practice than as a moral and political act. Unlike Anton, who began writing comic sketches and short stories of fiction for profit and public entertainments, to support himself and his family. Alexi Maximovitch Peshkov adopted the pseudonym of Maxim Gorky, 'gorky' meaning, bitter (sometimes translated as grief). Unlike Anton Pavlovitch Chekhov who became famous, simply, as Anton Chekhov. Gorky aligned himself politically with the Marxist Socialist-Democratic movement and was jailed or exiled for his political agitation, often. Unlike Anton Chekhov who did not, publicly, affiliate with any political movement and suffered no jail term or persecution. Maxim Gorky wrote novels, short stories and plays in the socialist realist method as a political activist. Unlike Chekhov, who, while abhorring the social and political conditions of his country, wrote observational stories of the human condition and became more pre-occupied with writing as a stylist than a social activist - perhaps, the greatest writer of short stories - and an innovator of the play form and characterisation along with, Nemirovitch-Dantchenko and Stanislavsky, at the Moscow Art Theatre.
Gorky did have his first plays produced under the aegis of the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT): THE PHILISTINES or SMUG PEOPLE (1901), THE LOWER DEPTHS (1902) and SUMMERFOLK (1904), after an introduction from Anton Chekhov to Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko and, subsequently, Konstantin Stanislavsky. Chekhov wrote, particularly, for the MAT company of actors: UNCLE VANYA (1899), THREE SISTERS (1901) and THE CHERRY ORCHARD (1904). Chekhov died in 1904, six months after the premiere of THE CHERRY ORCHARD - he never witnessed revolution, only gathering unrest. Maxim Gorky lived until 1938 and was witness and participant in both the revolutions - 1905 and 1917 - becoming a comrade to both Lenin and Stalin. Chekhov had a doctor's empathetic view of his fellow citizens. Gorky had a revolutionist's assertiveness, urging his fellow citizens for change, to change - even using violent change. Chekhov with his diagnosed illness was unsure of his future and seemed to embrace the irony of the life/death cycle as a humanist, some might say, near sentimentalist. Gorky fired by political ideology envisaged a sure future that he could be part of, and embraced in his writings and actions, the 'handbooks' of revolution. Chekhov came to observe life, Gorky participated and shaped life. Chekhov is remembered as a writer, a great writer. Some believe, it is Gorky the Man, defined by his political activities in the pre- and post-revolution eras, that is more impressive, than Gorky the Writer, and the reason for his longevity in history.
Gorky, in 1905, had become disaffected from the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), after disagreements with Nemirovitch-Dantchenko, and gave the premiere performance of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN, to Vera Komissarzhevskaya (the first Nina in THE SEAGULL) and her company at the Aleksandrinsky Theatre, St Petersburg. Gorky had written it while a political prisoner in the notorious Peter and Paul Fortress, as a result of his "drafted proclamation condemning Nicholas II as a murderer and calling for 'a struggle against the autocracy'"  following the Tsarist's troops slaughter of demonstrators at the infamous Bloody Sunday rally, in January, 1905 - almost a year before the first aborted revolution. The play opened in St Petersburg twelve days before the Moscow production, which was given "only on the assurance that Nemirovitch-Dantchenko would be restrained from distorting the text."  Gorky had, in fact, lost interest with the play and was now concerned deeply with the revolutionary mood of both cities. The populace were incensed when the Tsar proclaimed the Constitution on the 17th October and "it became clear that the reactionaries would never reconcile themselves with it and that the so-called "Black Hundreds would be let loose to do their worst."  The first performance, in Moscow, of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN, was given on the 24th October, 1905. The Tsar's supporters saw the Moscow Art Theatre as a hot-bed of revolutionaries, epitomised by the writer Gorky, and the actual audience on that first night ended in panic and near riot when they mistook the staged protest conclusion of the last act of the play as a reality - it was perceived by a jittery audience that an actual take-over of the theatre/stage was taking place, with guns held by reactionaries, the so-called Black Hundreds:
The stage-manager's assistant had the curtain rung down. ... When calm was restored the performance continued, but the theatre had been emptied of more than half its audience. (It played, courageously, for a further 21 performances during that Autumn). The first revolution - the December revolution of 1905 - was approaching. The public stubbornly refrained from play-going. ... On December 11 we were rehearsing ... and made the most incredible exertions neither to hear nor give heed to the reports of occurrences in the Square of Triumph we went on rehearsing until shots were heard under the very windows of the theatre and the theatre yard was invaded. ... Then began the long gloomy days ... There was martial law ... The Art Theatre was silent. 
THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN disappeared from the repertoire.
The adaptation, by Andrew Upton, of Gorky's play for the Royal National Theatre (Faber and Faber - 2013) is aggressively contemporary in much of its language choices that more than occasionally jangles one's comprehension with its bold anachronisms.The tendency to satirise the characters instead of maintaining the Gorky empathy for these people is necessarily a modern lens fracture (as in a fractured fairy tale, perhaps!) that does not reveal Gorky's sensibilities and intentions. The further adaptation of the English version for this Australian production at the STC has, for instance, a conflation of three characters into one - thereby removing some of the children of the sun, the representatives of the local working class peasantry, who are as self-obssessed as the principal characters - they are all children of the sun, equally culpable in the eyes of Gorky. What is best in the adaptation, is the decision to overlap the dialogue. Thereby, Mr Upton's changes have a contemporary freshness that supersedes the verbal (and sometimes structural) heaviness of the 1973, Moura Budberg (one of Gorky's wives) published version, but, for me, does not quite have the clarity, fluency and Gorky intention, found in the Penguin 1988 version by Kitty Hunter-Blair and Jeremy Brooks, commissioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In this production of Gorky/Upton's CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by Kip Williams, Helen Thomson, playing the desperately lost Melaniya, and Hamish Michael, playing the artist, Vageen, give outstanding performances. Both these actors, particularly, Ms Thomson, demonstrate their remarkable comic skills. Both, demonstrate almost incomparable clowning skills on this occasion. The audience I was with, found themselves laughing often, and loudly. However, both performances were, for me, a disaster of choice by these two actors and director, as they were exhibiting, demonstrating them in, altogether, the wrong play. If this were one of the burlesques of Chekhov: THE PROPOSAL or THE BEAR, for instance; or one of the more frantic Feydeau French farces, one of the one-acters e.g. BABY WON'T SHIT (1910), or, full length, A FLEA IN HER EAR (1906), or any contemporary farce: BOEING, BOEING, or a Franca Rame-Dario Fo, for example, nothing else could have been more appropriate, but not in THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN.
THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN is a play by Maxim Gorky, no matter any liberties taken by Mr Upton. Gorky's cannon of work is written in a serious social realist style. He is writing from close observation of the living world about him. Gorky wrote from a point-of-view that was empathetic to his fellow 'comrades' and, most importantly, from a lived comprehension for the given circumstances and motivations of his fellow citizens without judgement or satirical exaggeration. He was, rather, a super sensitive, observer, critic of the political and social circumstances that inhibited his fellow Russian citizens from experiencing justice and true liberty. He knew change must come.
His theatrical inspiration was the work of the contemporary Russian writers for the stage, Ostrovsky, (Tolstoy), and the early major Chekhov, and not from Gogol and his masterpiece, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR (1836). Not in any of his plays : THE LOWER DEPTHS (1902) , SUMMERFOLK (1904), PHILISTINES (1905), ENEMIES (1906), VASSA ZHELEZNOVA (1910), or some of his other literature: THE MOTHER (1906); THE LIFE OF A USELESS MAN (1907); his autobiographies: MY CHILDHOOD (1913-14) ; MY APPRENTICESHIP (1916); MY UNIVERSITIES (1923); or FRAGMENTS FROM MY DIARY (1940) - published posthumously and translated by Moura Budberg - have I come across any figure of observation writ as boldly and cartoony as the two performances given by Ms Thomson and Mr Michael in this production of the Gorky play. Nor, any character, as childishly comic, as some of the other performances.
For, most of the other performances, in Mr Williams' production, too, tended to 'represent' the characters, instead of revealing investigated experiential truths of the given circumstances of these men and women of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Russia. For, Gorky did not grow up and trudge the Russian Czardom and believe it was funny! He knew suffering, first hand. He knew pain, personally. He knew sorrow, personally. He knew injustice, personally. He knew of it from the core of his life experiences. And, the bigger picture of social and political movements of his past, and present, and future were his focused literary concerns. He did not write of it as satire. He did not write of it as comic. He was a revolutionary. He wrote to change the world. He wrote with little humour. He wrote from a long-time, festering anger, and demands for political change.
This Sydney Theatre Company production is/was created by Australian artists, seemingly, not alert, or even imaginatively engaged, with any empathy, for the origins of Gorky's Russian peoples and concerns, and were, rather, creating, as Australians of 2014, a CHILDREN OF THE RELAXED AND COMFORTABLE. A production of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN where all of Gorky's urgent concerns are made to appear ridiculous, funny, a satiric lampoon of humanity. It, created from a cultural experience that cares nothing, not even from studied secondary resources, of suffering and persecution, and the yearning that provokes the possibility of one's own death for demanding, claiming basic human rights. It comes from artists who seem to have no imagination or the courage to own such truths. From a culture where our societal crises are laughable and are, seemingly, easily brushed aside or, even worse ignored, denied. Artists in ignorance or denial of local and world dilemmas. Kidults, indeed. Blind, and protected from life realities, with a comic (missionary) zeal to protect us- their comrades/audience - from seeing them either.
To be fair:
Are we being warned, with the production of this text that "You'll laugh on the other side of your face, soon enough."? " Ignore our parable and you'll be sorry."?
Well, (let me think) .... No, no (thinking further) ... Oh, Oh, Oh, (is it a penny dropping, Kevin?), could this possibly be what Mr Upton has written in this adaptation of the original Gorky? Could this possibly be what Mr Williams has Directed?
Well ... if so, no ... NO ... no, not with my audience, who laughed loudly and applauded satisfactorily, and seemed to leave with no serious contemplation: "there but for the grace of god, and living in the lucky country, good old Australia, go I."
No, it had been definitely, a lovely afternoon's distraction, entertainment. "Let's have a cool pinot gris and look at that fabulous, harbour view." No serious paralleling of the play to their comfortable lives, for sure.
Well, (then let Kevin's dropping penny become a bullet) if that is so, the Adaptor and Director do Gorky's name an injustice, and totally mis-led me as to what to expect in the Drama Theatre. Gorky was the writer wasn't he? It said so on the title page. Then where was Gorky's intended play?
The last Gorky play to be seen in Sydney, professionally, was an adaptation by Jonathan Gavin, of Gorky's fierce, VASSA ZHELEZNOVA, re-titled, THE BUSINESS, and it, too, suffered from the comic leanings of the Australian theatre artist when confronted with serious, difficult statements of social behaviours and injustice. Satire, comic release, became its atmosphere to weather the savagery of the original. This relaxed and comfortable approach to real world issues, on our stages, may have had its apotheosis, in the shocking usage of Gogol's great satire, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, at Belvoir this year, by Simon Stone, that reduced the action and intentions of that critical work of the Romanov dynasty, to that of Aussie actors having a 'hissy-fit' because their ambitions have been thwarted by the no-show of a director! Hipster Gorky, Hipster Gogol and now Hipster Gorky, again! KIDULTS, all! CHILDREN OF THE AUSSIE SUN in an idyllic playground, a toy shop of STC privileges and resources. Play, play, laugh, laugh away your woes. Keep fiddling while Rome burns.
That all three plays are Russian, I wonder, is it an example of art imitating life, an artistic 'shirt fronting' of Putin (Russia), by these artists, in solidarity with our eloquent leader and his Team Australia?
Toby Truslove, as Protasov, the scientist, appeared to have no sense of the study of Chemistry, or the belief in the ideological soundness and future value of his work - it was the new societal transformative science of the age. Rather we saw a comic representation of an amateur dabbling in scientific investigation who was also a social dimwit, entirely devoid of any virtues that one could comprehend to justify why his wife, Yelena (Justine Clarke), stayed with him. - except, perhaps, his youthful looks! - be careful they are fleeting! We were given a deliberate cartoon reading to fit the Adaptor and Director's view that the society presented in this play was made up of 'kidults', which was preposterously, re-enforced with the last image in this production where, Mr Truslove's Protasov fell to his knees crying for his Nanny, in response to the riot surrounding his home and laboratory. It is an ending entirely forced by Mr Upton - not remotely what Gorky had written or intended. Mr Truslove's metier seemed more comfortable in his satirical work in the recent ABC comedy UTOPIA, than here, in the realist observation of Gorky's metaphoric children.
The performances truest to the Gorky ideas were those from the actors with roles that had been textually (or, in stage time) shrunken by Mr Upton and Williams, and they did seem to glimmer, it seemed to me, with their true dramaturgical function, but had not the production traction to enforce what they understood Gorky was about: Valerie Bader as the Nanny/housekeeper; Yure Kovich, saddled with the difficulty of representing as one man, three characters and ideas written by Gorky, as Yegor; Julia Ohannessian as Avdotya, the long-suffering peasant servant.
Jacqueline Mckenzie, usually such an insightful (and reliable actor) in her creation of Liza (the "Cassandra" of the author's voice), had reduced Liza to an hysteric (I longed to inform, shout out to Liza, that there was a cure for such behaviour investigated by her avatar, Ms Mckenzie, in Sarah Ruhl's IN THE NEXT ROOM, or THE VIBRATOR PLAY), an hysteric of personal disfunction rather than the clairvoyant of the greater social inequities, injustices that was driving her bigger world to inevitable upheaval, even revolution, and hence, her psychological stress and her uneaseful behaviour. Liza's 'hysteria' should be motivated, created, not from personal dilemmas, but by a super sensitive intuition to the social/worldly dilemmas. Liza, is a character type that appears as a core tool in the dramaturgy of much of Gorky's play literature, not reiterated here by either actor, or, her Director.
Puzzling, was one's wrestle with the story/function of the character, Boris, which Chris Ryan gave us. But, then, Mr Ryan did not have much help from some of the performances about him that should, under better circumstances, have helped to define Boris more (e.g. his relationship to his sister, Melaniya - the over-the-top Ms Thomson, a difficult offer to utilise well; or to Protasov - the befuddled Mr Truslove, a relative comic flummery, of not much substance to build with.) In an ensemble play all the pieces need to be on the same page of style and intention, one can't do it by oneself. So, unusually, the work of Mr Ryan was, relatively, invisible of function or intention. Of the other actors: James Bell, Jay Laga'aia, Contessa Trefone, all gave what they could in the hurly burly of the farcical tone that Mr Williams seemed to be driving for, so that often, what was left of the Gorky 'pull' in this adaptation, left them suspended in the space between two very different stools/schools of intention.
So, it is was with some amazement, and great admiration that Justine Clarke, as Yelena, the object of many affections in the play, managed, particularly in the final act of the play, to create a sustaining and credible human being serving Maxim Gorky well. Ms Clarke is a remarkable actor, indeed.
THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN is a good play, and even in this adaptation and production one could apprehend that. But, it is not Gorky's best by any means. I would have thought that with a statistic that reveals that 2.7 million Australians are living below the poverty line, today, that Gorky's masterpiece, THE LOWER DEPTHS, might be a more relevant play to present. (it hasn't been seen in Sydney since the Old Tote Company presented it in 1977, Directed by Liviu Culei. It winning the National Critic's Award for that year.) There has never been a professional production of SUMMERFOLK, in Sydney (Australia?) Gorky's other great play - but then, it has a cast of some 23, not likely to be attempted by the best subsidised company in Australia, too costly, and, I guess, we have, conveniently, available a ready made adaptation of THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by our Artistic Director, commissioned for another city, a different country. A city by the way, relatively, well versed in the works of Gorky, and so has a context for the play, the adaptation and the production. I suppose we couldn't commission new versions of these better and more relevant plays for Sydney, could we?
Oh, well, at least we can say we saw it, a play called CHILDREN OF THE SUN, by Maxim Gorky. However, you will be surprised when you read a contemporary translation of the original, you will be wondering "What did I, actually, see?" Sadly, we saw a reflection of an Australian culture that celebrates its good geographical luck, to be so far away from the heat of history (except when those boats kept/keep, arriving.) From a culture that can comfortably satirise other's difficulties and ignore the plight of refugees, contemporary revolutions and the collateral effects of such.
Have a laugh. Have another pinot gris, and don't disturb yourself. Maybe, the 'kidults' will grow into adults. Here's hoping.
N.B. : Ticket Cost = $84.00 (concession)
Sydney Opera House Trust Ticket Tax = $5.00. Although bought in person with cash on the day!
Program = $10.00
Total = $99.00.
I have not included refreshment or my Bus fares. I saw it at a matinee, so a taxi wasn't necessary.
- Sydney Theatre Company Program, Children of the Sun, 2014.
- My Life in the Russian Theatre, by Vladimir Nemirovitch-Dantchenko. Translated by John Cournos, London, Geoffrey Bles - 1936.
- The Moscow Arts Theatre Letters, selected, edited and translated with a commentary by Jean Benedetti, Methuen Drama, 1991.
- Stanislavski - A Biography, by Jean Benedetti. Methuen Drama - 1988.
- A Triptych from the Russian Theatre: The Komissarzhevskys, by Victor Borovsky. Hurst and Company, London, 2001.
- Gorky - A Biography, by Henri Troyat, translated from the French by Lowell Blair, Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, 1989.
- Gorky's Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences, translated, edited, and introduced by Donald Fanger, Yale University Press, 2008.
- Anton Chekhov - A Life, by Donald Rayfield. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997.
- A People's Tragedy. The Russian Revolution 1891 - 1924, by Orlando Figes. Penguin Books - 1996.
- Natasha's Dance, A Cultural History of Russia, by Orlando Figes. Penguin Books - 2002.