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Children of the Sun review: Rough Magic shakes up Gorky with humour, style and sheer chutzpah

Theatre: Purists may grind away a tooth or two, but Hilary Fannin’s adaptation will leave few audience members bored

Children of the Sun

Abbey Theatre, Dublin

Maxim Gorky, then in prison, wrote Children of the Sun during the “first Russian Revolution” of 1905. That tip on to an inevitable gradient is acknowledged in his tale of an upper-class (though poor) family largely oblivious of the chaos looming at their rented gate. That year was also when Albert Einstein published four papers that ultimately revolutionised thinking about time and space. The physicist’s annus mirabilis looms at least as largely in a version by Hilary Fannin – admired memoirist, novelist and columnist – for Rough Magic that, most notably in its second act, gives the piece such a vigorous shake that you can hear its vertebrae crack from the back row.

The opening act places us in a world recognisable from Anton Chekhov’s great plays and from fond recollections in the novels of Vladimir Nabokov. The eccentric patrician family. The extended hangers-on. All that. The ageing Pavel Protasov, played with impish distraction by Stuart Graham, divides his time between investigations into hair dye and musings on the nature of time. Elena (Aislín McGuckin), his wife, is less than enthusiastic in her affection. “Do you love Pavel?” Lisa (Rebecca O’Mara), her sister-in-law, asks. “I have devoted my time to him,” Elena doesn’t quite answer. It is Lisa, teetering towards mental illness, who realises, as the mad often do in plays, that some catastrophe is looming.

Meanwhile, the dance goes on. Elena poses in what looks like a straitjacket for a pretentious photographer. Fiona Bell comes close to stealing the first act with her clever-stupid turn as a vampish widow, deliciously named Melania, who has eyes on the oblivious Protasov.

It’s all enormous fun and beautifully mounted. Rough Magic’s artistic head, Lynne Parker, on board for the company’s 40th-anniversary celebrations, directs her actors towards a school of comedy that is always on the brink of despair. Sarah Bacon’s extraordinary set design, spreading vintage electronic bric-a-brac across four levels, initially looks to be attempting a supercharged pastiche of all things Chekhovian – the woods at the rear alone suggest that – but, when the second act batters its way into the auditorium, the design reveals an altogether more surprising purpose. The radios and reel-to-reel tape machines splutter into noisy action. Sarah Jane Shiels’s first-class lighting design shifts from dacha restraint to Saturday Night Fever judder.


Fannin is, apparently, abandoning mere parallels with contemporary concerns in the first act for, in the closing section, a frontal assault on our own fears and foolishness. Gorky himself is interrogated on his later responsibility for the gulags. Black Sabbath and Kraftwerk blast from the speakers. References are made to Steve Jobs and to Rudy Giuliani. The landlord’s son in the opening section now seems to be the billionaire owner of a soccer team.

One can hardly hope for such a postmodern blunderbuss to deliver total coherence, but, even if that denouement puzzles as much as it elucidates, the sheer chutzpah of the production ensures that few audience members will end up bored. Gorky purists may, however, as Fannin notes in the programme, grind away a few teeth.

Children of the Sun is at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until Saturday, May 11th, as part of Rough Magic’s 40th anniversary season

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist