Stellar cast in a funny play with a strange twist: ‘Kinderen van de zon’ (Toneelgroep Amsterdam/NTGent)

‘I want to do something. Something grand and heroic. But what?’ Oh yes: we’re in Russia, where big feelings rule, among a bunch of exalted scientists and artists. But they are turning their backs on what is happening out there, in the real world. That’s Kinderen van de zon (Children of the sun) in a nutshell, from 1905, by Maxim Gorki. The newest collaboration by Toneelgroep Amsterdam and NTGent premiered in Amsterdam (Stadsschouwburg) last weekend. A truly stellar cast will bring their bitter comedy to Ghent (January 2011) and Brussels (February).

It starts off with a bang. Yet another one of those experiments by scientist Pavel Protassov that goes wrong. And it certainly won’t be the last one. Protassov (glasses, bald, sticky hair) is the central character in this play that Gorki wrote during his short imprisonment in St. Petersburg. All the other characters are orbiting around him, as planets around the sun.

There’s Lisa (a magnificent Halina Reijn), his weird and traumatized sister, who, as Children of the sun progresses, turns out to be the real central character of this play. She tries to point out to everyone that the world outside needs their attention too. ‘Don’t you see how horrible life is?’  Then you have Melanie (Elsie De Brauw), shy as a smitten teenager, who tries to convince Pavel of her love. There’s Pavel’s wife Jelena (Hilde Van Mieghem), sturdy and composed, and neglected by her husband. And then you have dreamer and painter Dimitri (Wim Opbrouck), who is in love with Jelena, and veterinarian Boris (Gijs Scholten Van Aschat) who is trying to convince Lisa of his feelings for her. They are all children of the sun, as Pavel will explain. Capable of only the best. They will make life good and beautiful. Cholera raging through the village? That is only of a minor concern to them.

Kinderen van de zon will, at first, surprise fans of the work of revered theatre and opera director Ivo Van Hove (and his cohort, scenographer Jan Versweyveld). No high-tech this time around. Just a simple decor: an old kitchen with many doors. And they are avidly used, as in the best of silly comedies. Actors come and go. And once in a while yet another explosion is heard from the lab of Pavel Protassov.

It’s a real joy to see all these experienced and gifted actors on stage. And they sure are funny too. Because Van Hove focuses on their funny side. Pavel really is a silly, absent-minded professor, who hasn’t got a clue of what is going on around him, and all the other actors are merely caricatures too, although they all excel in coming up with big philosophical thoughts. You absolutely have a good time, watching them play.

But as Kinderen van de zon nears the end, the downside of this approach becomes clear. By focusing on the silly side Van Hove (and the actors) make these characters rather one-dimensional. And when it’s time for the real emotions to come into play, you don’t buy that from them, anymore. By then it’s impossible for them to convince you of their heartfelt emotions.

And it is as if Van Hove feels that as well, because all of a sudden the play goes into overdrive. When the villagers attack Pavel’s house, and it becomes clear that Lisa’s warnings weren’t that silly at all, the walls of that kitchen are used as a film screen. Not only the villagers are kicking on those walls, but Hitler, Richard Nixon and Osama Bin Laden too. Whoah! It makes for a strange twist and it feels as a rather desperate attempt to save this play and to link it to today’s world. In the end even Radiohead’s overly dramatic Exit music (for a film) is added as an extra layer for maximum effect. To me this big climax felt really awkward, but Van Hove’s theatrical trickery sure had its effect on others: all the members of the audience immediately got out of their seats for a standing ovation.

More info and tour schedule here.

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