The National Theatre has been experimenting with chemistry for the premiere of its latest Andrew Upton/Howard Davies collaboration, Gorky’s Children Of The Sun, and a hypothesis of inevitable explosion is more than proved correct.
In fact, Bunny Christie’s design almost steals the whole show with said chemistry, but as tempting as it is to reveal this tension-filled production’s scientific secrets, some things are better left as a surprise.
It’s not all about science, however. Like work by Gorky’s Russian colleague Chekhov, Children Of The Sun revolves around one family’s interaction with the world outside their privileged walls in the late 19th century, the history of one revolution fresh in people’s minds while another bubbles amongst a disillusioned society.
While the head of this particular household may occasionally struggle to pay the rent or compensate the servants, his life is as far removed from the majority as today’s millionaire politicians are from people struggling to live on minimum wage; something of which his sister Liza is keen to remind him off.
But while his naïve dedication to changing the world with his potions and bumbling experiments is revered – and, in the case of his biggest fan Melaniya, positively lusted over – his sister’s anxiety and fevered pleading for people to take notice of the revolution building is put down to emotional fragility and excessive worrying.
Reminiscent of Eugene O’Neill, all the action takes place in one room with a simmering sense of foreboding building dangerously in every scene. But Upton’s very modern script adaptation is also engagingly witty and as decadently liberal with the word ‘fabulous’ as the characters themselves are with their love lives.
Paul Higgins is perfectly cast as the local vet, whose passion for Liza prompts regular outbursts of language you’d more likely expect to hear in The Thick Of It than a Gorky play. Geoffrey Streatfeild is suitably clueless as the detached scientist Protasov who is too busy playing with his Bunsen burner to realise his bohemian wife is busy being wooed by artist Vageen, who is hilariously played as a brilliantly ridiculous, pretentious caricature of an artist by Gerald Kyd.
While the stage effects may be unexpected, what is even more shocking is the relevance of a play written in 1905 and the fact that you could take the characters out of their three piece suits and place them in modern dress without losing much in translation between the ages. While we may no longer live and love in a time of cholera, our ability to be distracted from the real burgeoning issues by intellectual and emotional pursuits is, it seems, timeless.