Recently I pointed out how the theatre marquees of London and Broadway are turning into large illuminated video shelves with wave after wave of screen-to-stage adaptations and jokingly wondered when the musical of PERSONA would be turning up.
Well while we wait... how about a stage adaptation of Nikita Mikhalkov's 1994 film BURNT BY THE SUN which won the Best Foreign Language Academy Award? Why not I said and went with Owen last night to see Howard Davies' production at the Lyttleton.
For such a film where the dreamlike visuals are primarily what one remembers, Peter Flannery has transferred it well to the stage. Indeed the start is reminiscent of Chekhov with a family seated around a veranda table mildly squabbling - and of course addressing each other by their full names "Now Irena Irenavanovich...". How short Russian plays would be if they didn't do that!
It's an interesting way to start as these are indeed Chekhov's people but we soon find out that times have changed. It's 1936, the revolution, Tsar Nicholas and Lenin are history and a glorious world awaits the people under Stalin. What we know (thanks to the programme) but they don't is that he is about to initiate his reign of terror when he scythed down his rivals in the higher echelons of The Party before starting on the populace.
We are in the dacha of General Sergei Kotov - a Revolutionary general whose name still strikes awe in soldier and populace alike and who boasts of having Stalin's private number in the Kremlin. He lives there with his younger wife Maroussia and little daughter Nadia as well as playing host to his in-laws: mother-in-law, grandmother, grandmother's best friend, the best friend's son and and Maroussia's maternal great-uncle, all of whom cling to their vanished past when they were part of the cultural elite, much to Kotov's frustration. They have a reason though... it is their old home.
On a long drowsy summer day the family members are surprised when a disruptive old tramp who invades the home is none other than Mitya, a young former friend of the family who vanished from their lives years ago. The joyful reunion though is fraught with tension as Mitya makes no attempt to hide his bitterness at Maroussia for marrying the older man. But as the long day closes Mitya's real reason for returning is revealed.As with every production of his, Howard Davies' direction is slowly methodical, no peaks or troughs, trusting to the material and performers to generate the tension required. The sexual tension is certainly there among the three lead characters, finally released in an explosive scene where Mitya performs a cocky tap-dance learned while in Paris only to be answered in kind by Kotov's stamping peasant dance learned in the army.
The solid cast all contribute to a seamless ensemble - the family members include Anna Carteret, Rowena Cooper, Tim McMullan and Duncan Bell who all suggest lives of stifled happiness. There are also telling performances from Stephanie Jacob as the family's put-upon maid and Tony Turner as a truck driver who has lost his way. For a brief moment they start the flowering of a friendship but the truck driver is also synonymous with the Russian people, cluelessly lost and heading for disaster.
The major annoyance of the evening was the absence of Ciaran Hinds as Kotov.
No don't mind me, Mr. Hinds you take that night off. I can only hope his absence was due to his possibly being at Natasha Richardson's funeral as they starred on Broadway together. Anyway Kotov was played by Colin Haigh who actually reminded me a lot of Colin Blakely - especially as Stalin in RED MONARCH. He was ok in the role but I can imagine Hinds dominating the stage as befits the character's magnetism.
The role of Marussia was played quite marvellously by Michelle Dockery, how to describe her? Imagine a Keira Knightley who can act. It is a difficult part to play as for most of the time she simply has to react to Mitya's relentless goading but she conveyed a woman torn by feelings of doubt and frustration very well. In the film it is revealed that the character vanished into the Gulags and you can imagine Dockery's tragically wilful Marussia suffering such a fate.
With the absence of Mr. Hinds Rory Kinnear dominated the play with his firey, kinetic performance as Mitya. It would have been nice to see him colliding with a more immovable object than Haigh's Kotov but it's so rare these days to see an actor who can 'play out' as well as Kinnear can. It's a strange role as half the time Mitya is infuriating with his sudden manic bursts of energy and unreasonable demands on Marussia's fidelity but as the play progresses Rory Kinnear perfectly captured the quick flashes of the character's own painful betrayal before revealing his true mission to the house.
The ending shared the film's tragi-comic air of impeding doom delayed by the family's unwitting interference but was also hampered by the need to have a dramatic full-stop whereas Mikhalkov's film ended with a series of haunting images.
It's a film I think I would like to seek out again.