Burnt By The Sun

Posted on: 29 April 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Sexual jealousy, retribution and remorseless political backstabbing at the dawn of the Stalinist terror provide the ingredients of Peter Flannery’s new play Burnt By The Sun.


It is 1936, Russia, and Colonel Kotov, decorated hero of the Russian Revolution, a true believer in the Party and in Stalin, is spending an idyllic summer in the country with his beloved young wife, Maroussia, and her family, oblivious to what is about to engulf him. 

The dacha, which once belonged to them in those far off pre-Revolutionary days, they simply refer to as “before”.  It was a world of culture and refinement – Puccini, Aeschylus, bone china tea sets and croquet on the lawn.  All this is gone, to be replaced by marching bands, Communist composers and team games. 

Full of regrets, living in a world of charming reminiscence, the older generation thinks the loss of their old genteel world is the worst that is going to befall them.

Then in mid-morning, as they finish their coffee and cakes, terror arrives with a smile on his face.  It is Mitia, former lover of Maroussia, who has returned after a long and unexplained absence.  He has songs to sing and dances to perform which will beguile away the rest of the day. 

But as darkness falls his friends arrive from Moscow and Kotov is made to feel the full, horrifying reach of Stalin’s rule.

This is a play in which the personal is seamlessly intertwined with the political.  Essentially it is a story of love that was once won, then lost, and finally betrayed.  The past of a disappearing world, only to be replaced by a brutal future, is seen through a love triangle. 

Flannery here examines the extent to which the individual must relinquish their sense of self in order to survive – and serve – a totalitarian state.

Howard Davies’s engrossing production is strong on atmosphere and realism – marching bands parade across the stage with banners bearing pictures of Stalin, the sound of planes flying overhead, and a paranoid society, fearing an attack is imminent, results in everyone donning gas masks. 

Furthermore designer Vicki Mortimer has recreated a marvellously evocative Chekhovian-style dacha, or country house, that fills up much of the Lyttleton’s stage.

But what most impresses are the excellent performances from Ciarán Hinds as Kotov, a man committed to the ideals of Communism and confident that the traumas of Revolution and Civil War belong to a distant past and can never be repeated, who lives in the style of a 19th century estate owner but without the aristocracy and class struggle, Michelle Dockery as his attractive, abstracted young wife, Maroussia, and Rory Kinnear as the devious court jester Mitia, a man blinded by despair who brings the house down on all their heads.

Adapted from Nikita Mikhalkov’s 1944 Oscar-winning film of the same name, this is without doubt a resounding triumph for the National!

When: Plays in repertory until May 21st.

Where: National Theatre’s Lyttleton Auditorium

Box Office: 020 7452 3000

By Laurence Green

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