To say that the star of this production of Bulgakov's epic play is the set is to suggest that this is the ultimate example of a decadent theatre. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet Tim Hatley has created something spectacular, a huge machine-like metallic wall strung with cables, belching, smoking and hiding shutters which rise and fall: it's a force against which the actors have to battle to survive.
Historical determinism may have been the guiding faith of the Bolsheviks, but Bulgakov's play, written in eight dreams and set in 1918 during the chaos of the Russian civil war, creates a grotesque, tragicomic world in which men and women are entirely at the mercy of chance.
Torn between two roads, the young student Golubkov (Michael Mueller), along with hundreds of other refugees, randomly takes one and walks into a platoon of Bolsheviks who line them against the wall and prepare to shoot. Their lives are unexpectedly spared when the executioners are interrupted and diverted into different directions. No wonder that the two central images are that of a cockroach race run by white émigrés struggling to survive in Constantinople, and of a card game in Paris where Nicholas Jones's brilliantly funny, well-heeled profiteer loses millions to Kenneth Cranham's Charnota who arrives in the house dressed in little but yellow longjohns.
This version at the National, a very rare chance to see a play that for censorship reasons could never be performed in Bulgakov's lifetime, has been freely created by Ron Hutchinson who relishes the playwright's blackly comic vision. The larger than life expressionism of Howard Davies' production is perfectly illustrated in Alan Howard's performance, slouched in a great coat, of the moody, mordant Khludov, who, let down by his political leaders, has a policy that consists of little more than retreating, blaspheming and hanging, the latter usually without cause or reason. British and Russian culture creatively collide in this big, bold production on the Olivier stage.
Time Out, 18-25. 2.98.