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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Burnt By The Sun
Lyttelton Theatre       Spring 2009

By 1936 Stalin had killed off most of the 'Enemies of the USSR' he could find and turned his sights on anyone in the Soviet Establishment who might offer the slightest threat to him, effectively purging all the upper management of state, military and industry.

This is the setting for Peter Flannery's new play, based on a 1994 Russian film.

General Sergei Kotov, hero of the revolution, lives in rather bourgeois semi-retirement on the estate of his wife's White Russian family. They sit around reminiscing about the good old days while he sneers, not too unkindly, from the position of his absolute faith in the new order.

Then his wife's first lover suddenly appears after a long absence.

We settle in for what looks like a romantic triangle and a battle of the two men for the prize. But, rather too late in the second act, it is revealed that the visitor has a much darker purpose, and Kotov's position is not as secure as he thought - the title refers to the fate of those who fly too high.

An interesting concept, and a way of approaching the enormity of Stalin's millions of victims through one domestic story. Why, then, is the play so lifeless in this National Theatre production?

I don't know the Russian film, so I can't say whether it is its fault or Peter Flannery's that the secondary characters - the General's in-laws and their friends - never become real or seem to have much purpose beyond filling empty spaces on the stage.

Certainly, as directed by Howard Davies, the roles seem total wastes of such skilled performers as Anna Carteret and Duncan Bell.

And I'll guess that it may be from the film that Flannery took the overly-repeated shortcut to labelling them as bourgeois and decadent by having them enjoy the music of Puccini.

I can certainly blame director Davies for totally failing to create a sense of ensemble among the players - you get no sense at all of these characters as a family, or even that these actors have ever met each other before tonight.

Ciaran Hinds gives Kotov some reality by playing him as a sort of benign junior-league Stalin, combining a zealot's confidence with a peasant's street-smarts.

Michelle Dockery has little to do but look unhappy - unhappily married, unhappily reunited with her lover, unhappily forced to choose, unhappily not seeing what's really going on - and so plays the whole evening on one unmodulated note.

And Rory Kinnear has simply not been guided toward finding some continuity and unity in a character who spends most of the play as a lovesick wooer only to suddenly reveal an entirely different personality.

It may have worked as a film, with cinematic reality providing a sense of time and place, and cinematic close-ups filling in the barely sketched characters.

But it has not translated well to the stage, and the fault must be shared by the adapter and, particularly, the director.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Burnt By The Sun - National Theatre 2009

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