Burnt by the Sun, National Theatre, May 2009Posted on 20 May 2009
This is based on a 1994 movie by Rustam Ibragimbekov and Nikita Mikhalkov, and was turned into a play by Peter Flannery. The story takes place in 1936 as Stalin’s reign of terror is just picking up steam, and it deals with the destruction of General Sergei Kotov, whose idealism and strength of character were well portrayed by Ciaran Hinds. His wife Maroussia was convincingly played by Michelle Dockery, and her ex-fiancé Mitya (Dmitri Andreevich) was coolly and engagingly played by Rory Kinnear. He arrives unexpectedly at their dacha where Kotov lives in retirement with his daughter, wife, and members of her family of ex-aristocrats, and it is clear that Mitya and Maroussia still have strong feelings for one another. Mitya is a cultivated lover of the arts who plays the piano and listens to recordings of Puccini operas, and has been living abroad since disappearing suddenly several years ago, with no word of explanation to Maroussia. The reason was that Kotov got rid of him by having him forcibly recruited into the NKVD (a secret police and intelligence service), which sent him to Paris to spy on Russian émigrés. Kotov realises Mitya may try to take revenge, but feels secure in his personal connection with Stalin. He is close to the sun, but burnt by it, as Mitya falsely accuses him of spying for the Germans and Japanese, has him beaten up and taken away by NKVD agents. As for Mitya, he commits suicide. Throughout the play there are sexual undertones. Kotov seems to have a relationship with his ten year old daughter that some matrons in Maroussia’s family regard as too close, and he calls Mitya ‘pretty boy’ in a demeaning way that may reflect consciousness of a repressed adulation that Mitya bears him.
The acting was excellent. Not only did Ciaran Hinds, Michelle Dockery and Rory Kinnear play their parts extremely well, the members of Maroussia’s family were all realistically portrayed. Howard Davies directed well and the designs by Vicki Mortimer were very effective.
I understand there was once a plan to end with historical information on a screen — I would have liked that. Sergei Kotov, Commander in the Red Army was shot on 12 October 1936; his wife Maroussia was sentenced to 10 years in a prison camp where she died in 1940; his daughter Nadia was arrested with her mother, and now lives in retirement in Kazakhstan. They were rehabilitated on 27 November 1956 — Stalin died in 1953.