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Burnt by the sun
Michelle Dockery – Maroussia, Holly Gibbs -  Nadia,
Ciarán Hinds – Kotov

Russia in one dimension

Corinna Lotz reviews Burnt by the Sun at the National Theatre 2 stars

Burnt by the Sun is a stage adaptation of the ravishingly beautiful Academy award-winning 1991 film written, directed and acted by legendary masters of the Soviet and post-Soviet cinema industry, Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov. Writer-screenwriter Ibramgimbekov, now 70, has cult status in his native Azerbaijan, for films like White Sun of the Desert (1969) and his brilliant Urga Territory of Love, (1991) the story of a Mongolian shepherd.

Ibramgimbekov’s story of a civil war hero Colonel Kotov and his family, set on the eve of the Stalin terror, reached the world cinema screens as part of the great unravelling that was unleashed by Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s.

For about a decade there was an outpouring of hitherto repressed documents and art works which revealed the secret but real history of the Soviet Union in the Stalin era. A more complete and more truthful understanding of Soviet history now became possible – not only of the Stalinist terror, but the watershed between the revolutionary Civil War period and what came later in the 1930s, as the grip of the bureaucracy strangled those who had made the revolution.

One of the most sensitive issues was how Stalin had murdered thousands of  Red Army officers, effectively beheading Soviet armed forces on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Before Burnt by the Sun reached the screen in 1994, Yevgeny Tsymbal’s politically daring Tale of the Unextinguished Moon, about the mysterious death of the People’s Commissar for War, Mikhail Frunze, appeared in 1990. It was based on a previously banned story by Boris Pilyniak.

So, with a such a great starting point and a stage adaptation by Our Friends from the North/Devil’s Whore writer Peter Flannery and direction by Howard Davies, plus a superb cast, surely we would be in a safe pair of hands?

Burnt by the sun

And there is a good deal to savour at the beginning. A beguiling tango band and the gorgeous voice of Harry Hepple set a lyrical tone. The revolving, rambling dacha designed by Vicki Mortimer provides a perfect setting for the calm in the face of the gathering storm. As our eyes pan from leisurely breakfast room to music room, a sense of fragility arises amidst an ebb and flow of chatter by Chekhovian aunties and grannies (Pamela Merrick, Rowena Cooper and Anna Carteret).

The ladies, joined by languid lawyer Vsevolod (Duncan Bell) and the tippling good-for-nothing Kirik (Tim McMullan) hark back to an idyllic ancien regime when one could go to the opera and didn’t have to sew one’s own clothes. The pastel dressing-gowned chit-chat is disrupted only by a neurotic servant girl, Mokhova (Stephanie Jacob). Indeed, the first half of Burnt by the Sun constantly refers back to Chekhov, not least the staging of his unfinished play, Platonov (or Ivanov), which graced the Barbican back in 2007, performed by the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg directed by Lev Dodin.

Burnt by the sun
Skye Bennett – Nadia, Ciarán Hinds – Kotov

But this is a kind of Chekhov in reverse. And a counter-revolution is unfolding this time around. Events take place in 1936, nearly two decades after the Russian Revolution. The would-be gentry’s moaning about how things have changed is interrupted by the deafening sound of low-flying airplanes and their host’s Colonel Kotov’s daughter Nadia (Skye Bennett). She runs in crying that tanks have encroached on the wheat fields around the country house. What is supposed to be a happy holiday is burdened with forebodings of horrors to come. All of this is convincingly done, adorned by a sparkling performance by the young Skye Bennett.

Burnt by the sun
Rory Kinnear – Mitia

Shining out amidst the confusion and horror is a luminous performance by Michelle Dockery as Kotov’s young wife, Maroussia. (Dockery currently features in David Peace’s West Riding trilogy on Channel 4). As in Flannery’s The Devil’s Whore, there is a laudable effort to show the woman’s side of history. Maroussia’s ashen face and silences as events unfold speak volumes. She suffers as she keeps on asking her former lover, the multi-talented, Puccini-singing Mitia (a chameleon-like Rory Kinnear) why he abandoned her and why he has returned – all without explanation.

Her innocence and love, like that of her daughter, provides the only rays of hope and life. From passive subject, she bursts into life in vivacious dancing episodes. Dockery, the piano playing, the Young Pioneer marching band and singing (designed and directed by Ilona Sekacz and Dan Jackson) are the undoubted high points of the play. Maroussia’s beauty and pain give the play a focus, heart and poignancy it otherwise lacks. But her questions and pleas remain unanswered.

Colonel Kotov, played by a tough-looking Ciarán Hinds, struggles to assert the authority and dignity of the famous war hero that he is in the face of obsequious upstarts. But he is also trapped in the past, not grasping that power has moved into the hands of a new ruling elite, backed by Stalin’s notorious secret police, the NKVD. Kotov’s insistence to his rival Mitia that “you always have a choice” soon rings hollow in the end, when he is confronted with arrest and torture. 

But why is this stage version so different from the film in its air of utter helplessness? 
Overall, the political thrust is that there is little if anything to distinguish the Stalin era from the early years of the Revolution. Stalinism appears as a monstrous machine from which there was no escape and which no one, but no one, could offer serious resistance at any point.

This point is reinforced towards the end, when Kotov dons his uniform, making his mustachioed resemblance to Stalin even greater. Kotov is depicted as a somewhat brutish peasant who was himself a proto-Stalinist, again departing from the film version where he was played more sympathetically by Mikhalkov himself. So the moral is this: every struggler for the revolution was responsible for what happened later under Stalin.

So this production is a rebuke to those who struggled to keep alive the true history of the revolution – and doesn’t make for convincing theatre to boot. It will shock no one who thinks that history proves nothing more than that people get the government that they deserve. Politically, it simply confirms the worn-out clichés about the Russian revolution. Cue historian Robert Service’s Life Under Stalin which features in the programme notes. He refers to what he calls “communism” in 1991 but not a word about Gorbachev and others’ efforts to expose the true history of the Soviet Union. Let’s hope that the fine team of performers, designers, musicians and technicians at the National get a less politically correct(ed) script the next time around.

Meanwhile, for an open account of the early years of the Russian Revolution, with its artistic flowering and real political problems (and debates), you could do worse than walk further down the South Bank to the Tate Modern, where the show about Rodchenko and Popova is packing them in.

6 March 2009

Burnt by the Sun is at the National Theatre until April 21. Production photographer Catherine Ashmore

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