February 5, 1998: Bulgakov, Flight

National Theatre, Olivier

First night of previews. Technically the production was still a little rough — most noticeably when a ladder came down out of the flies and went right through a desk, which partly collapsed! But we didn’t care. We had paid a bargain price (all seats £11.00) to be in on the opening of this play, and it was worth it. It is a sprawling work — “A Play in Eight Dreams,” Bulgakov styles it — but it has a relentless driving force and a set of memorable, extremely well acted characters that give it force, momentum, and coherence. The play tells the story of the defeat of the Czarist White Army by the Bolsheviks, who drive the Army, in much disarray, almost literally into the sea. The scenes take us farther south and east, the last half of the play being set in Constantinople except for one “Dream” in Paris, the next to last.

Among a fine group of actors Alan Howard is a stand-out as Roman Khludov, the cynical, despairing White Army Chief of Staff. The play comes across as deep satire with a strong vein of farce. Howard catches the right tone of this in his snarling, nasal, self-deprecating depiction of a man who has no choice but to go on and on to inevitable defeat. And yet there is a subdued note of pathos in the character as well; we end up admiring him for his understated real courage in the face of great adversity.

Still, the play functions well as satire. Bulgakov, the program note tells us, was not an ardent Bolshevik, and he led a meager and precarious existence as a writer under Stalin — who, it seems, liked Bulgakov well enough to spare his life but not well enough to allow him to thrive by openly speaking his mind. As a result, although the play enjoyed some temporary prosperity in Stalinist Russia, the winds of change grew adversely for it and for Bulgakov himself, whose fame now — most especially for the novel The Master and Margarita — is largely posthumous.

In any case, Bulgakov and his true ideas have been done proud in this sumptuous and energetic production. We get a wonderful sense of a whole nation on the run, of chaos that persists no matter what human efforts are made to contain it. It is a long play — it ran 3 1/2 hours including an over-long interval — and I expect as they perfect its mounting the playing time will be cut back to about three hours. But it takes a long time to set out Bulgakov’s idea of humanity in flight, desperate to survive but always alive to the comic ironies of their situation. This is what the stages like the Olivier were made for. I would willingly go back and see it again, if that were only possible.

Alas, I have come to the end of my four weeks’ stay. During this period I have seen twenty-three plays.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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