Preview: Burnt by the Sun
Ella Griffiths talks to Hugh Wyld and Charlotte Hamblin about putting Stalinist Russia on the ADC stage
by Ella Griffiths
Friday 11th May 2012, 13:57 BST
A play depicting the devastating personal consequences of the Stalinist purges was always going to be difficult to handle. Adapted from the screenplay of Nikita Mikhalkov’s film, Peter Flannery’s Burnt by the Sun explores the political and personal tensions in the life of a senior Red Army officer and his family in 1930s Russia. However, this “mammoth” creative task is one that director Hugh Wyld and lead actress Charlotte Hamblin playing Maroussia have embraced, melding a sprawling ensemble of actors with a live orchestra and evocative set. Impressed by the play’s ability to “shine a light on the personal history of Stalin’s Russia”, Hugh describes orchestrating shifts between moods as a vital directorial challenge for himself and assistant director Amy Powell: “I need to know when we’re up and when we’re down, as if you play your tension too highly, you’ll lose your audience”. This uneasy atmosphere of “a family enjoying their summer holidays but knowing there’s something murky underneath” requires a subtle use of foreboding to vividly create this “hugely personal thriller”.
Luckily, touring together while acting in Macbeth and King Lear has forged an intimate creative relationship between the two. “My character is so sensitive, so volatile, that if it’s not handled in the right way by an actress it could be very destructive”, Charlotte recognises, “and Hugh knows what I do when I cheat so gets the real stuff out of me”. As this is his first attempt at directing an ADC mainshow, Hugh appreciates the experience of “being on the other end” as an actor, feeling that this “very subtle” play with “so much subtext” is a very different theatrical experience to a Shakespearean tragedy. Recounting the breakdown of a Chekhovian idyll after the arrival of ex-lover Mitia, Charlotte refers to the play as “microcosmic of all those families that were brutally torn apart” in Stalin’s reign of terror. In her first role playing a mother, Charlotte describes her character as “a little flighty bird, clocking in and out of reality” as the two men use her as a “pawn in their political games”. “She’s a troubled soul, a manic-depressive, but her family always bring her out of her isolation again”, says Charlotte, recounting how the cast practiced improvisation and used bonding exercises to create a sense of a close-knit family uniting four generations.
How did they feel working under the powerful weight of history? “Tapping into the mind-set of that time is something quite alien to us”, Hugh says, “especially the idea of being whole-heartedly for the Communist party“. However, after talking to Orlando Figes about the reality of Russian life, he realised that the play is “giving a voice to the very personal story of a family battling this odd political turmoil”. A fundamental part of Russian culture is music, with the play’s title based on a Polish tango famous as being the tune to which émigrés shot themselves. It was decided that Pete Teverson’s adaptations of traditional songs should be performed by the orchestra because, as Charlotte describes, the “music of the time is just so beautiful that we wouldn’t want to do anything else with it”. With the band raising spirits and generating outbursts of enthusiastic dancing in rehearsals, she praises how Pete instinctively: “knows the feel of a play, when music should or shouldn’t be used”. Battling through blisters, she has learned three new dances - the can-can, the tango and tap-dancing – capturing the passionate spirit of Russian life, while Will Attenborough playing Mitia even learned the piano especially for the play.
A similar energy was injected by the presence of five child actors playing Nadia and a Pioneer band. Working for the first time with children, Hugh realises the need to “be very professional” but also describes them as “a joy”, with Nadia “bridging the gap between joy and terror” in the text. Charlotte links this to the crucial dramatic theme of “putting a face on things”, as Nadia’s entrances initiate distorting shifts in tone because “adults behave differently when children are around”. After the precedent of the revolving dacha used by the National Theatre production in 2009, which Charlotte calls “the best play I’d ever seen”, Hugh knew fashioning these different playing spaces would be hard. With set designer Charlotte Call’s assistance, what Hugh coins as a “lamb-chop” design has been used to construct the three layers of the garden, the veranda and the music room. “The action flows in and out of each one”, Hugh tells me, “while the lighting will draw the audience’s eyes to certain spaces”.
What have been their favourite aspects of working on the play? “The wonderful thing is that it’s involved so many people, from musicians to a huge amount of actors to kids to designers”, Charlotte muses, “so we feed off the energy that they all just exude”. “It’s very exciting”, agrees Hugh, “and with the shifts in the script we’ve been working with, things will come out that you just won’t expect”. After planning an adventure on the Trans-Siberian railway involving a re-enactment of Anna Karenina, they hand me a red envelope containing an invitation to celebrations for Comrade Stalin’s airships and balloons. This quirky attention to detail is indicative of the dedication invested in the play: we can only await the transformation of the ADC stage into a microcosm of Communist Russia on Tuesday.