Review of Burnt By the Sun
When I went to London for the first time in 2009 and toured the National Theatre, we saw the amazing set of one of the plays that was being put on, Burnt By the Sun. The set was a fully-built house, which was turned this way and that depending on what needed to be seen. I thought that such a wonderful set much be for a wonderful play, but it wasn’t until I lived there two years later that I finally got a copy of it. Finally, an additional year later, I’ve read it.
The play is based on the 1994 Oscar-winning film of the same name. The play script is written by Peter Flannery and revolves around Kotov, a general who has finally returned to his young wife and daughter for a summer in 1936. He’s a hero of the Russian Revolution, and from the first scene, his influence over his family and town, as well as the military, is obvious. His power over the latter is such that he doesn’t have to be unkind or even raise his voice to completely turn plans to his liking. But Kotov’s idyllic life is turned over when his wife’s former lover, Mitia, returns after ten years away. Suddenly, Kotov finds himself in competition with the charming stranger who may know more about Kostov’s past than Kostov wishes his family to know.
Burnt By the Sun starts out slowly; Flannery takes his time in laying out who everyone is to one another and how lovely Kostov’s life has been since he returned to his family. For viewing purposes, I think the opening might dawdle a bit, but it makes for good reading. Just as in Chekhov, the Russian characters have several names, all long and unpronounceable, and the more time we get to know the individuals, the easier reading becomes.
Almost all of the characters themselves are quite intriguing. While there are some, such as the grannies, without whom the play would get along just fine, the others are colorful and complex. Kostov has great love for his family and a great many secrets… but the reason he keeps those secrets quiet is because of the love for his family. Maroussia, his wife, spends most of the play being pulled between her older husband and the younger former lover. However, she is not the typical ingénue being charmed against her will. When she feels herself being pulled in either direction, she takes herself away until she can fully assess the situation. Their daughter Nadia is observant and funny, but still believably a child. Mitia’s objectives change in every scene; sometimes he seems to be after only Maroussia, in whatever way he can get her, and in others, he longs for the simplicity of life outside of the army, which is what foiled his plans of life with Maroussia in the first place. While he can be despicable, the reader thinks how painful it must be to have Maroussia’s (but not his) child call him “Uncle Mitia.” And then there is Mokhova, the maid, who is constantly teased because of her “middle-aged virginity;” the poor woman spends the entirety of the play expressing pride in her virginity while longing for a driver who keeps coming back to the house. He explains later that he wishes to marry her, only to be shot dead by a soldier minutes later. There seems to be a theme in Russian plays that no one must be happy; the only constantly cheery person is Nadia, and even she is arrested at the end of the play for being the daughter of a traitor.
Flannery (or perhaps the writers of the screenplay) gives the reader some wonderfully full moments in his script. About halfway through the play, Mitia and Maroussia finally get a moment alone. Maroussia asks him why he’s come back after a decade of being away. He never sent her a single letter while he was gone. “What’s the point of it now?” she asks. Mitia answers by telling the story of their first night together, after Maroussia ran away from home and he found her and comforted her. “I talked to you for hours. About your father. You didn’t know how you would ever live without him. And how could death have taken him so unfairly? And I read you Aeschylus. Do you remember?” He recites a beautiful passage. Maroussia listens, but responds only with, “You went away.” “Nothing has changed for you at all,” Matia tells her. “You’ve obliterated me, Maroussia… taken me out of the picture. Forgotten me.” The moment that follows is electric even on the page, a difficult thing to do in a play. I was completely drawn into the story, wondering if they were going to kiss, unable to decide if I wanted them to or not.
The play also manages to be of its time as well as stretch into all eras with the study of romantic relationships. Though Kotov wishes himself above Mitia’s power games, he knows he has to play along or risk losing his wife. So for every time Mitia encourages Maroussia to dance as he plays the piano, Kotov counters it by showing that he knows her physically. These kinds of power struggles are timeless and Flannery plays it out well. He also ends the play with proof that winning such a battle does not mean winning all of the battles; though Mitia succeeds in having Kotov arrested for being a traitor, it still doesn’t get him Maroussia’s love or the easy life, and the final scene of the play is him doing shots of vodka and playing Russian roulette.
I wish I could have seen Burnt By the Sun; it’s the sort of play that is so alive on the page that it must be even better on the stage. Check out this play- it’s pretty awesome!
NADIA: Will today go on for ever?
KOTOV: Would you like it to?
NADIA: You’ve no idea how good it feels to be with you.
KOTOV: Each day must end, Nadia. But more days come after. Remember that. And those days make a path. Follow your path. Follow it well. Work hard. Respect your parents and teachers. And above all, Nadia, cherish your Soviet motherland.
NADIA: I adore you.
KOTOV: With you, everything is calm. And easy. Perhaps this day with just drift for ever. Like the boat on the river. Would you like that?
NADIA: Yes. As long as we can have Mamma in our boat.
KOTOV: Of course. We wouldn’t leave her behind.
KOTOV: Tell me what it’s like to lose all the time.
MITIA: Who’s losing?
KOTOV: You told me. You lost the war. You lost the good life. You lost Maroussia. You became a sad man. Lonely, eh? Sad. Life didn’t raise you up as you thought it should.
MITIA: Those who fly too high up get burnt by the sun.
KOTOV: That can be true, Comrade. But at least I know who I am and what I am. Here. Inside. I’m sure.