Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Burnt By the Sun

Peter Flannery, from the screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov
RNT Lyttelton
(2009)

Production photo

Plays based on movies have been all the rage in recent years but, unusually, this stage transfer by Peter Flannery takes as its basis a 15-year-old Russian film that, despite winning an Oscar, remains relatively obscure (at least in this country) rather than a much-loved box office hit.

Burnt by the Sun, set in the Soviet Union in 1936 as Stalin began to purge his country of the troublesome intelligentsia, tries to blend together a number of themes with reasonable but not total conviction.

It starts as a post-Chekhovian exploration of the displacement of White Russian gentry by the Soviets. The latter are symbolised by Ciarán Hinds as a Stalin clone, General Kotov, who keeps his iron fist reasonably well hidden from his beautiful young wife's indigent and indolent family. These dinosaurs constantly hark back to the good times before a Revolution that they dare not even name.

The second phase is heralded by the arrival of an omniscient blind beggar bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Soviet Billy Connolly. He transforms himself into Mitya, a former musical prodigy played by Rory Kinnear, who at various times shows surprising talent as a singer, musician, tap dancer and, of course, actor.

Mitya had disappeared twelve years earlier leaving the household but especially its young lady bereft. Michelle Dockery is the symbolic Maroussia (My Russia?) torn between love for a blunt, Bolshevik husband representing the new regime and her old flame bringing back memories of an affluent past when her father, the patriarch who loved music, was still alive.

The last stages manoeuvre us into a complicated tale of spying with cross, double cross and worse confusing the audience as they try to work out who was, is and will be on which side. By the end, it is clear that neither faction will ultimately win, since they are too keen on defeating each other to seek a mutually beneficial future.

Around these three distinct strands, several other minor dramas play out, allowing a series of character actors to strut their stuff, led by Stephanie Jacob as Mokhova the maid, a wittily-dawn, sensitive "middle-aged virgin".

Also worth a mention are Skye Bennett playing 9-year-old Nadia (on opening night), who tries to hold things together without understanding the complicated machinations that she unwittingly attempts to rise above, and Tim McMullan as a drunken wastrel brother-in-law who really could have stepped straight from Chekhov.

The spy plot of Burnt by the Sun is overly complicated for Western brains that are not steeped in the messy history of the Russian Revolution and the NKVD (predecessors of the KGB - now also defunct).

However, its portrait of a family that has lost its purpose in Vicki Mortimer's splendid revolving wooden dacha is enjoyable, as is the love triangle plus child, aided by strong, nicely defined performances from each of the three leading actors, especially Michelle Dockery, whose visible anguish can be painful to observe.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher