Review – Burnt By The Sun, National Theatre

Friday 27 February 2009

burnt-by-the-sun Obviously this was to represent a reassuring and long overdue return for the Whingers to somewhere more akin to their spiritual home and if not to the West End exactly, then at least to the bastion of generously funded proper theatre boasting safety curtains, scenery, proscenium arches  and all the other reliable trappings that make a theatre a proper place for theatre.

Yes, after 10 days wandering through the wilderness of the fringe, the prodigal Whingers returned on Shrove Tuesday to the National Theatre to see Burnt By The Sun, based on Nikita Mikhalkov‘s Oscar-winning 1994 film.

And how nice it was to be once again in a world of coat-checks, places to sit in the common areas and numbered seats with corresponding numbers on the tickets. And all in zone 1. We even smiled at the sight of the National’s airline-style signage designed to assess the suitability of one’s handbag for the auditorium.

And, indeed, Burnt By The Sun has almost everything you could want from a piece of theatre. Admittedly there was no Dame of the British Empire, but if you squinted (as Andrew does most of the time) at Anna Carteret you could make do.

But otherwise it was all there: the man hailed by the Whingers as one of London’s finest stage actors (Rory Kinnear), the woman who captivated the Whingers as Eliza at the Old Vic last year (Michelle Dockery), a revolving set (Vicki Mortimer), on-stage food consumption, a marching band, piano playing and tap-dancing, some history, a Channel 4 newsreader sitting behind us, a marvellously informative programme… And yet… and yet….

The adaptation is byPeter Our Friends In The North Flannery. It is set in post-revolutionary, pre-WW2  Russia – 1936 since you ask.

It’s summer. Bolshevik hero General Kotov (Ciarán Hinds, left with Kinnear) lives in a large house near Moscow with his young wife Maroussia (Michelle Dockery) and her extended family whose house this previously was. The house is very impressive and spins like a top to reveal the rooms in which the action takes place (actually, in retrospect, it was a bit Rose Tattoo now we come to think about it).

Anyway, when Maroussia’s former lover Mitia (Rory Kinnear) turns up after many years away, things understandably go a bit pear-shaped. Or, as the National has it, “amidst a tangle of sexual jealousy, retribution and remorseless political backstabbing, Kotov feels the full, horrifying reach of Stalin’s rule”.

Not an awful lot happens in Act 1 but the whole thing turns very satisfyingly on its head in act 2 (we’re talking about the plot now, not the house – that would indeed have been worth waiting for). But we were completely unprepared for the twist that the action took in Act 2. Admittedly it doesn’t take much to fool the Whingers but we really weren’t prepared for it, possibly because we hadn’t read the National’s description carefully enough.

Now, of course, one of the cardinal sins for a playwright is to think that as long as you make Act 2 interesting enough you can pretty much do what you like in Act 1 and it was only because (a) the Whingers had guests and (b) they didn’t want to look like philistines in the eyes of a Channel 4 newsreader that they stayed. So it was that close.

But on the plus side there is a lot of talent on the stage. Hinds, particularly, is superb.

And Phil got terribly excited at the appearance of a field telephone: this early mobile would never have made it through the National’s “does my bag look big in this? ” policy, perhaps much to the relief of say Ken Stott or Richard Griffiths. Phil, who sees the mobile as a new fangled irritant which will never catch on, imagined people bellowing “I can’t talk! I’m at the pogrom! No, it’s rubbish!”

And there was more excitement when a poke in the ribs from Andrew drew Phil’s attention to some food-on-stage business he nearly missed. He became so mesmerised by Marcus Cunningham‘s impressive ability to remove the peel from an apple in a single piece with a seemingly rusty blade and then consume said unhygienically prepared fruit. For future performances we suggest he toss the piece of peel to the floor that audiences might see the initial of his future bride.

So, yes, some things to enjoy, but despite the bigness of the stars and the bigness of the set and the bigness of the ambition, there was a part of the Whingers that inside was wishing they were watching Nicola McAuliffe tied to a chair over a bistro in West London or half-a-dozen under-rehearsed sketches in Hackney as had been there lot of late.

Oh, we don’t know. We like the bigness of the proper theatre. But if someone could be bothered to search the Internet for us perhaps they could let us know who felt that a play should be made out of the the Nikita Mikhalkov‘s Oscar-winning 1994 film and why.

Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it. We stayed to the bitter end, after all, but we did spend quite a lot of time idly thinking of all the films there must be that are aching to  be made into plays, and all the plays that are already plays and don’t need to be made into anything else, and that between them all there must be something really good worthy of being staged at the National Theatre.

Of course we couldn’t actually think of anything ourselves. Not off the top of our heads. But then they have whole departments dedicated to thinking about these kinds of things at the National so it’s not really fair to hold us responsible.

Please, someone, save us from a life on the fringe fighting for seats and queuing on staircases. Restore our faith in proper theatre. Something mind-blowingly good. Please.

21 Responses to “Review – Burnt By The Sun, National Theatre”


  1. Hinds, particularly, is superb.

    This was all I needed to read.😀 Whingers, thanks for making my meeting with Mr Hinds memorable for you were both there to witness it! And let’s not forget to mention Tim of course.

    I share the sentiment re: Kinnear. He is due to play Hamlet next year – you’ve heard of that for sure?

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    I just haven’t been able to get excited about this play. Let me know when Mr. Sloane Part Two takes place – otherwise I’ll just indulge in the Vamps, Vixens and Femmes Fatales season at the BFI.

  3. Latecomer Says:

    Go see A View from The Bridge…that should restore faith.


  4. Is that a photograph from the production or Andrew telling a putative Whingerette he can’t turn up to the theatre in a tracksuit?

  5. Larry Wilkes Says:

    Oh tis the theatreness of it all. Muffled words drifting up into the grid, longuers when you can gaze at the soft little hairs on the back of the neck in front, the occasional ringtone….I was lulled, as I suppose I should have been sitting in the sun. So that was ok then.
    Vicki Mortimer’s revolving dacha provided the magically cinematic effect of watching someone walking through a building.

  6. Roo Says:

    FeignedMischief: Rory Kinnear is definitely playing Hamlet at the NT next year. Am very excited!


  7. @Roo: Indeed! Are you going to see Burnt by the Sun or that’s a daft question because you’ve already seen it?😉

  8. A Clown Says:

    “Not an awful lot happens in Act 1”

    Granted, but I felt that this was one of the things that the NT does so well, putting together a quality ensemble cast and just letting them create the appropriate atmosphere, in this case the genial bonhomie which in turns makes the disruption of the events of Act 2 all the more shocking.

    And since I saw it on the same evening as you, I am gutted that I missed the apple peeling. Maybe you should set up some kind of Whingers surtitling service so none of us miss any of these details.

  9. Larry Wilkes Says:

    Apple peeling? Me neither. I did, though, on the night that I was there, witness Rory Kinnear accidently knock his vodka over causing the hapless chap to down an empty glass in full view of a full house. I wasn’t at all surprised by what happened next.

  10. igb Says:

    For what it’s worth, the film is absolutely stunning. And profoundly cinematic, which makes me wonder why it’s been play’d. When plays are filmed the results are usually overly wordy, set-bound and stagey; the reverse is even odder, because the film probably contains a laundry list of things you can’t do on stage.

    I have this horrible suspicion that in many peoples’ minds there’s a hierarchy, where the worst of one item is more worthwhile than the best of the next item. It runs for the lower middle classes something like novel-play-film-TV, so things to the right of that list try to make themselves look more serious by ripping off things to the left (hence TV adaptations of 19th century classic realist texts, and films of minor Shakespeare). In reverse, however: why?

  11. musician Says:

    Not sure how valid my comments are as I am in fact in the play, albeit a minor role as a member of the marching band and having no acting qualifications myself, however, I was lucky enough to see the whole play on one of the first nights it was staged and I loved it. Rory Kinnear is a stunning actor, and granted the first half doesn’t amount to much but, in my opinion, it gives the story some much needed background and the effects created onstage by the revolve and the lighting on the riverbank are certainly impressive, so it held my attention.
    My main criticism was that after the deeply moving ending I don’t think I (or the audience as a whole, for that matter) was given enough chance to ‘recover’ before the bows began, and with the youth band as the first to come on to bow, I feel slightly guilty about being a part of this! There was previously a plan to have a screen with facts about Kotov and Maroussia’s deaths and Nadia’s life which was meant to bring home the reality of the story…I don’t know, maybe that would have been better but I never actually witnessed that effect in the dress rehearsals so I can never be fully sure.
    I have also seen the film, and it’s true that it was a work of cinematic elegance, and I am glad to say that I do not think that the play has in any way sullied my memory of it, in fact I was impressed by how many of the scenes were pulled off as they were.
    All in all a positive review from me, and whilst theatre is barely my area of expertise, it’s certainly a fine example of it and I would recommend it to anyone.

    • Larry Wilkes Says:

      I thought The Marching Band was first class! Well done!

    • Techie Says:

      Yes it was a bit of a shame that the ending bit of video was cut – I was working on the ending video for that show, so for those who might be interested, it was going to be:

      “Kotov, Serguei Petrovich, Commander of the Red Army was shot on 12th October 1936. He was posthumously rehabilitated on 27th November 1956”

      “Kotova, Maroussia Borisovna, was sentenced to 10 years in a prison camp and died there in 1940. She was posthumously rehabilitated on 27th November 1956”

      “Nadia Kotova was arrested with her mother on 12th August 1936 and fully rehabilitated on 27th November 1956. She lives in retirement in Kazakhstan, where she once worked in a music school”

      ..and the marching band was fab🙂

  12. bobby Says:

    It WAS mind-blowingly good.


  13. @ musician and techie. We hope it’s clear from the review above that the marching band and the video were the highlights for us.

    Thank you so much for contributing. We hope you don’t get told off for it.

    When did the video get cut and why? It was there the night we saw it.

    • techie Says:

      Hi Andrew,

      The video was cut before the press night – I think because it made the ending a bit too clunky with curtain calls etc. It’s just how it happens sometimes – same thing happened for the ending of Every good Boy Deserves a Favour – little bit of video of info on the characters running during the curtain calls originally, but feedback was that it was confusing and meant the poor audience didn’t quite know when to leave! (We do like ’em to shuffle off smart-ish so we can get to bed early with a nice cocoa)

      Still, enjoyed the review (always do, good and bad!) and glad to contribute🙂

      • A Clown Says:

        How interesting. I’ve always wondered to what extent changes can still be made during the preview period, and generally one doesn’t tend to see a play again so I’ve never known if anything is ever altered.
        So thank you for enlightening me!

  14. sandown Says:

    As for the Whingers’ question above, on why the National should put on a play based on a 1994 film, a similar question might be asked about the recent production of EGBDF, which was originally written in 1976.

    The subsidised theatre showed no inclination to put on plays on the subject of the evils of Communism — a system that killed around 40 million people — when the Soviet Union was actually in existence.

    On the other hand, the subsidised theatre was very keen to put on lots and lots of plays about the wickedness of Thatcherism, as the BBC still does.

    Perhaps the taxpayers’ subsidy to the theatre and to broadcasting is our compassionate way of providing a sunset home for ageing lefties. Who said there was no such thing as society?

  15. Simon Says:

    This is the only wise review that I’ve seen of this franky dreadful production. It’s compared with Chekhov by several critics but I can’t see the good doctor, with his love of subtle characterisation, being terribly interested in all the daft double agent/espionage nonsense. The singing NKVD officers could have come straight from a Mel Brooks film.

    It seems to me that the National Theatre gets a much easier ride from the critics than other stages. Their clanking Much Ado was praised to the skies.


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