There is a delicious unspoken tension about the first half of Peter Flannery’s adaptation of the 1995 Russian-language Oscar-winning film, Burnt By The Sun. A looming air of rivalry and wordless hatred hangs over the house of General Kotov, designer Vicki Mortimer’s wooden veranda filling the Lyttelton’s stage.
The tension arises from the arrival of Rory Kinnear’s Mitia, formerly a frequent visitor to the house Kotov now calls his own. Before the revolution it had belonged to the father of Maroussia, Kotov’s wife. Now, in the wake of the birth of a new country, her family is allowed by Kotov to live with him and hark back to the old days when they used to enjoy nights at the opera. Then Mitia returns home in disguise, a man with a story to tell, secrets to hide and a dark purpose.
This purpose becomes clearer in the second half of Howard Davies’s production. The quiet seething and subtle rutting of the two men is replaced with an open battle for power; the trusting, believing Bolshevik Kotov facing up to a new, underhand and paranoid face of communism.
The quiet hatred between Kinnear’s Mitia and Ciaran Hinds’s Kotov is electric. This is a meeting between men with a shared, hidden story, men who are diametrically opposed to each other. Hinds’s Kotov cuts an imposing figure – big, bold, brash, with hands, undoubtedly, scarred and roughed up by hard labour – yet never really bullies or lords his position. He is quietly in control, an idealist prepared to give his life for his beliefs.
Kinnear, by contrast, thrives in the light and shade of the comedy and tragedy of Mitia, shifting effortlessly between the two while darting in and out of the murky shadows of Stalin’s summer. Caught between the two men, Michelle Dockery’s Maroussia is both shattered and whole, fragile and strong, still very much a child when compared to the two men who ultimately control her life.
While the ominous spectre of Stalin hangs over events like a cloud passing across the sun, there is sweetness to be found in the Russian summer; a doting child looks up to her father, while Stephanie Jacobs’s wonderfully naïve maid Mokhova is touched by love. Yet by the time Stalin has finished his work, even this sweetness has a kick like vodka.