Fresh air keeps red and white flag flying

Unlike Mayakovsky, Babel and several other Russian dramatists of the 1920s and 1930s, Mikhail Bulgakov died in bed. But long before 1940, when kidney disease killed him, he was a ruined man, barely remembered even for The White Guard, which Stalin had liked well enough to overlook its fair-minded handling of the class enemy. Flight had been banned in mid-rehearsal in 1929. Though it, too, involved the civil war, and was less sympathetic to the Whites, the ideologues were determined that Bulgakov would no longer sully their stainless theatres.

Much that's sharp and more that's fun in Howard Davies's National Theatre production has actually been contributed by the adapter, Ron Hutchinson. The Reds in the original were not as nasty nor the Whites as crazy as he suggests. But I would regret the tampering more if I felt it distorted Bulgakov's spirit. Maybe the 'butcher of the Crimea' , General Khludov, should not be as grotesquely sinister as Alan Howard makes him. If Michael Glenny's standard translation is to be trusted, nor should he be followed around by the ghost of the dimmest of the many men he has hanged. But the result is a Bulgakovian feel in keeping with the wildly askew world of 1920.

Davies and his designer, Tim Hatley, brilliantly catch that feel, especially in the stronger first half. Refugees tumble from a vast black-panelled wall, festooned with wire, to be threatened first by Reds, next by Whites. The walls shift to give us a railway station converted into a Kafkaesque military bureaucracy, then a plundered palace in Sebastopol, and actor after actor grabs the attention: Michael Mueller as the wimpish student who falls for Abigail Cruttenden's ardent Serafima, arrested as a bolshevik just for searching for her cowardly husband; Kenneth Cranham as a genially blokeish white general, Peter Blythe as his hysterical commander-in-chief, and (above all) Howard in silkily nihilistic mode.

The stakes are lower in the second half, which shows the Whites on their uppers in Hatley's exotically messy Constantinople. A play about the fate of Russia now involves the future of Cruttenden and Mueller's romance; and, despite some bizarre cockroach racing in Turkey and a wonderfully wild card-game in Paris, that proves less absorbing. The ending, which explains why the play is divided into 'dreams', not 'scenes', comes across as Bulgakov's pitifully unsuccessful attempt to appease the Stalinists.

How awful that so fine a writer came to such a pass. The revival at the National, accretions and all, is a reparation of sorts; and most of the time an ebulliently enjoyable one.

Benedict Nightingale

The Times, 14.2.98.

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