Despite the glowing reviews I'd had some trepidation about Burnt by the Sun, because for some reason anything set in a Russian dacha has bored me to tears; even the dacha-set sequence in Night Watch lost my attention. Fortunately Peter Flannery's play, based on an Oscar-winning Russian film, lives up to the hype and is a very effective modern tragedy.
Set at the very start of Stalin's Purges, Kotov (Ciarán Hinds) is a celebrated Red Army General, living with his much younger wife Maroussia (tonight the excellent understudy Charlotte Pyke) and her extended family, at a dacha that used to be theirs before the Revolution, and which they can now stay in only because Kotov allows them to. Despite his fearsome reputation Kotov is naive about the true extent of the danger Stalin poses, and doesn't see it even when his wife's long-lost childhood sweetheart, the dynamic Mitia (the National's current golden boy, Rory Kinnear) reappears suddenly after a 12-year absence. The two men's battles for Maroussia's affections covers a more sinister motive behind Mitia's reappearance.
Howard Davies' production moves at a brisk pace and despite the dark subject matter keeps a light tone with the oblivious supporting characters continuing to dance and sing their days away. As if to justify the theatre company's faith in him (Nicholas Hytner has made no secret of the fact that he's so keen for him to play Hamlet there, he's willing to rearrange the National's performance programme to suit the actor's schedule) Kinnear not only gives an energetic performance but also plays the piano, sings opera and tap-dances. The production even manages to bring a balance of ridiculousness with real menace to a dance-off between the two suitors, Kinnear tap-dancing while Hinds Kossack-dances. All-round a very impressive production, getting the balance between comedy and tragedy just right.
Burnt by the Sun by Peter Flannery, based on a screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov, is booking until the 21st of May at the National Theatre's Lyttelton stage.