Jacqueline McKenzie, Justine Clarke, Valerie Bader, Julia Ohannessian, Toby Truslove, Jay Laga'aia, James Bell, Chris Ryan, Yure Covich. All images: Brett Boardman.



Children of the Sun, by Maxim Gorky, in a new version by Andrew Upton | Directed by Kip Williams

Sydney Theatre Company | Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre | Until 25 October

Maxim Gorky wrote Children of the Sun while briefly imprisoned during the Russian Revolution, and it is within this context of upheaval that Kip Williams and Andrew Upton set the Drama Theatre stage ablaze — so to speak.

Upton maintains the Russian background to his adaptation of Gorky’s 1905 original, while updating the language. At first, this makes for an unusual merging of very Aussie lingo with period costume. It doesn’t take long to adjust, however. There is so much to absorb and enjoy that soon the fact that a beautifully dressed, well-to-do lady drops the f-bomb doesn’t register other than as a fitting riposte.

One of the reasons this adaptation fits so well into contemporary life is the universality of yearning — long before psychologist Abraham Maslow posited his theory on the hierarchy of needs in 1943, Gorky embodied this concept in the struggle of these privileged “kidults”, as Upton fittingly calls them. While the peasants battle the basest physiological and safety needs at the bottom of the hierarchy, within the house on the hill it’s much more about the pinnacle, self-actualisation. The view from that pinnacle isn’t as clear as one might think.

Protasov (Toby Truslove) single-mindedly works on his experiments, driven by a vision of a better future for all mankind. Amidst some very perceptive declarations on the future of science, he remains oblivious to the more immediate impact of his obsession: a marriage on the brink, a sister on the verge of (another) breakdown, and imminent revolt from the local peasants.

His wife Yelena (a brilliant portrayal by Justine Clarke) finds company and creative inspiration from artist Vageen (Hamish Michael), who in turn finds an unrequited passion for Yelena.

Jacqueline McKenzie plays Protasov’s sister, the tormented Liza, to perfection —desperate to be happy but incapable of seeing anything other than suffering and impending tragedy around her, despairing at the ignorance of others to share her doomed vision.

Furthering the desperation and unrequited passion, local vet Boris (Chris Ryan) aches for Liza, while his sister Melaniya (Helen Thomson, in dazzling comedic form) chases Protasov. Nanny (Valerie Bader) rolls her eyes at the lot of them, while maid Feema (Contessa Treffone) works to move up her own hierarchy of needs.

The comedy of these combinations plays fast, aided by a revolving stage that shifts the action around a main sitting area and a variety of partially constructed rooms. Boldly exposed flats, complete with sandbags and clamps, enhance a sense of disconnect and impermanence.

The outside world refuses to remain apart from this rarefied existence. Completing the ensemble, Yegor (Yure Covich), wife Avdotya (Julia Ohannessian), Nazar (Jay Laga’aia) and Misha (James Bell) bring their own perspectives on survival and a changing world order.

While much of Children of the Sun is humorous, the dark undercurrent of revolt cannot be held back. Tension builds to a powerful, inevitable conclusion. Max Lyandvert’s soundscape creates a gripping backdrop to the increasing chaos and fear. In the presence of death, even children of the sun are consumed by the shadow.

Justine Clarke, Jacqueline McKenzie, Helen Thomson.

Toby Truslove, Helen Thomson.