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.