Sunlight shimmers through silver birches over the dacha as the shiftless, the listless and the lovelorn wallow in a little vodka and a lot more nostalgia. Everything is in place in a Chekhovian world … except we're actually in 1936, 32 years after Chekhov's death, on the brink of Stalin's Great Terror.

Sunlight shimmers through silver birches over the dacha as the shiftless, the listless and the lovelorn wallow in a little vodka and a lot more nostalgia. Everything is in place in a Chekhovian world … except we’re actually in 1936, 32 years after Chekhov’s death, on the brink of Stalin’s Great Terror. Peter Flannery’s assured adaptation of the movie “Burnt by the Sun” exerts an increasingly tense grip, but its hallmark is its command of the past’s impact upon the present, an understanding evident in every element of Howard Davies’ atmosphere-drenched production.

Cleaving not to the letter but to the seriocomic spirit of the 1994 Oscar winner for foreign-language film, Flannery holds on to the theatrically convenient structure. Everything takes place on one fateful day in the life of the family of Gen. Kotov (Ciaran Hinds), a man who cheerfully — and dangerously — boasts of having a direct phone line to Stalin.

The benign mood of his summer idyll shifts with the unexpected return of Mitia (Rory Kinnear) after 12 years’ absence. Mitia is a musician and former lover of Kotov’s beautiful wife, Maroussia (Michelle Dockery), and his provoking presence excites passions that have devastating consequences.

Tim McMullan’s benign buffoon Kirik accuses Maroussia’s newspaper-reading uncle Vsevolod (gently touching Duncan Bell) of being like Trofimov, the eternal student of “The Cherry Orchard.” He’s not wrong. And although Vsevolod cries, “I’m not apathetic, I’m passionate,” you’d be hard-pressed to notice, given his character’s easy capitulation to the amusingly rendered lassitude that hangs like scent over Kotov’s household.

Yet Vsevolod is the only member of Maroussia’s retinue who senses the repression about to engulf the country, and that duality is crucial to the play. As in Chekhov, almost every character is given contradictory impulses and emotions. Latched on to a study of allegiances, alliances and lies both personal and avowedly political, it adds up to an almost thriller-like group portrait.

In the more plot-driven second half, previously mysterious motives are made clear. Answers to pressing questions — exactly why has Mitia come home, why did he leave, and who is now in control? — mean tables keep turning. The smiling antipathy between Kotov and Mitia shifts inexorably from a simmer to a boil. Helmer Davies not only builds tension by keeping the lid on their hatred, but stokes the atmosphere by cunningly balancing their physicalities.

Hinds’ Kotov is less jolly and seemingly benign than his movie counterpart but he has a solidity and weight that allows him to hold fire while still being redolent of authority. The crucial role of his very young daughter Nadia has been trimmed but his generous physical ease with her adds vital warmth.  

Kinnear, by contrast, has a dashing, physical abandon. He literally whirls into the house, and even leaps up onto a piano with ease. This allows his still moments of regret to register all the more strongly. His scenes with Dockery’s taut and shiveringly distressed Maroussia have the shock of sincerity.

As Vicki Mortimer’s grand-scale set calmly wheels around to reveal contrasting interior and exterior spaces — a veranda, a music room, a lakeside — it becomes ever clearer that no one in this group of people, caught in a frighteningly resonant political moment, can be easily pigeonholed.

Some are stronger, some are weaker, some make selfish choices. But, affectingly, none are incontrovertibly right or wrong. This makes them as fascinating to watch as they are satisfying for the actors to play.

Burnt by the Sun

National Theater/Lyttelton, London; 898 seats; £41 $58 top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Peter Flannery, based on the screenplay by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov. Directed by Howard Davies.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Vicki Mortimer; lighting, Mark Henderson; original music, Ilona Sekacz; sound, Christopher Shutt; musical direction, Dan Jackson; choreography, Scarlett Mackmin; production stage manager, David Milling. Opened, reviewed, March 3, 2009. Running time: 2 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Cast

Kotov - Ciaran Hinds Mitia - Rory Kinnear Maroussia - Michelle Dockery Vsevolod - Duncan Bell Elena - Anna Carteret Lidia - Rowena Cooper Mokhova - Stephanie Jacob Kirik - Tim McMullan Olga - Pamela Merrick Truck Driver - Tony Turner Nadia - Skye Bennett/Holly Gibbs Pioneer Girl - Anna Burnett/Floss Hoffmann/Hattie Webb
With: Marcus Cunningham, Michael Grady-Hall, Colin Haigh, Harry Hepple, Anne Kavanagh, Victoria Lennox, Stuart Martin, Charlotte Pyke, Roger Ringrose.

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