Turbulence on the flight to disintegration

Banned by Stalin in 1928 as anti-Soviet, Mikhail Bulgakov's Flight emerges in this very free adaptation by Ron Hutchinson as one of the most powerful evocations of civil war written this century. Conceived by Bulgakov as eight sequential "dreams" or perhaps nightmares, the play steers a turbulent course between black farce, comedy and melodrama as it follows a group of White Russian soldies and civilians caught in the last eruptions of the civil war. Howard Davies's lyrical production may misguidedly reek of sumptuousness and grandeur rather than chaos, but it achieves an epic sweep and dash.

Even 70 years after its premiere, Flight has preserved an air of bracing experimentalism. There's no neat dramatic narrative form. The dream-like structure, with Paddy Cuneen's outbursts of music, allows for jumps and cuts for characters who spring up, disappear and return as if roughly motored by chance or fate. This is just the thing for a drama dealing with a Russia on the verge of disintegration. The darkness of the situation is matched by Hutchinson's modern, Anglicised turn of embittered humour.

"Excuse me, your grace," Alan Howard's White Army Chief, Khludov, oozing deadly suave menace, interrupts an Archbishop in prayer. "Is it really worth bothering the Almighty with this? He may not, after all, be on our side and if he is, he's not done much of a job up to now for us, has he?" Hutchinson has wittily improved upon the standard translation here, there and almost everywhere, though I fancy, in his adapting vigour, he has smoothed away a distinctly Slavic tone. Mr Howard's sinister, ghost-haunted Khludov and the evening's prime comic delight revels in camp villainy of an Anglo-Saxon kind.

The look of the production, though, is suitably alien. The flighty dream scenes whisk from monastery to railway waiting room converted to White Army Headquarters, emigrate to Sebastopol, detour to Paris and end up in Constantinople. Tim Hatley's spectacular design, very much in the National's new style of opulence, depends upon a towering black wall across the stage. This edifice ingeniously moves, opens up, changes shape and discloses tiers of shattered windows. But a far greater sense of a war-struck Russia would have helped.

The play's main lines of violent action, with White Russians fighting against the odds and staring defeat in its bloodied face, are beautifully negotiated. Two love problems trace their way through war's complex hurly-burly, while two exiled White army commanders, reduced to selling balloons and presiding over cockroach races, humorously reveal the price of survival. Michael Mueller's callow, innocent university student Sergei (the programme wrongly identifies him as a professor), pursues the dazzling prospect of Abigail Cruttenden's Serafima, who sounds like a Noel Coward 1950s heroine.

When he ends up with Serafima and Kenneth Cranham's enriched White army general, eager to return to the new Russia, Davies suggests with a final coup de theatre they have surrendered to a wild dream of happiness that real life will not allow to happen. This spectacular staging ought to precipitate a full scale revival for Bulgakov.

Nicholas De Jongh

London Evening Standard, 13.2.98.


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