Mikhail Bulgakovs play, Flight, currently playing at the National theatre, is probably an unknown quantity to most theatre-goers. Bulgakov himself may not be. His following in the West, and his near messianic status in Russia, rests mainly on his prose.
In fact Bulgakov wrote nearly ten plays and was an assistant director at the Moscow Art Theatre for a six-year period before his early death in 1940. Despite being a well-known playwright, he was facing destitution, the street and death. Stalin, the dictator, had liked his first and only play to be produced, The White Guard, and therefore personally recommended Bulgakov for a job. His vocal disbelief at being made such an offer, and its ensuring confirmation, is illustrative of what the new programme-notes call the principle history as farce. No matter what you do or what your personality traits may be, you are absolutely at the mercy of chance. If your name happens to be on the wrong list, or you walk into the wrong room at the wrong time, thats how it goes. Bulgakovs response to this eternal dilemma is, with many other Twentieth Century writers, to laugh.
On paper this works brilliantly, but how would his proto-magic realism, with all its flights of fancy, appear on the stage? The setting for the play, I noted with a touch of gloom, was the end of the Russian revolution, with all its attendant disorder and chaos. Would the light touch of his prose appear leaden and heavy on the stage? How many other great prose writers fail to make the leap across to the concrete world of the stage.
The simple answer, no. From the startling opening seconds down to the very last breathtaking shout of joy, this play is a wonder. On the stage the play is as much about Howard Davies direction, the large casts excellent ensemble work, Paddy Cuneens music and Tim Hatleys sets as it is Mikhail Bulgakovs.
The resources of the stage are used wonderfully. Such a big space demands something arresting, and that is exactly what we get from the very first scene. It is quite a feat to place the gloom of the war-racked Ukrainian outposts so vividly in the memory. The cast, too, etch their own characters onto the mind. This is not a play for pontificating silences. In the desperation of retreat the philosophising commander-in-chief is shown to be the shallowest of all. Desperation calls for men and women of action, or measured cynicism.
The true test of such people, though, is not on the battle-field, but in the boredom and languor of exile. The second half of the play transports us to crumbling, seedy Istanbul, where money must be found at any price; and then lost on a peculiarly Russian form of gambling. The eventual denouement comes like the crack of a rifle-bullet. Laughter, history, thought, and not a drop of self-pity.
This is a blockbuster antidote to our Hollywood-surfeited imaginations and conceptions of what story-telling can be like. At three hours it may be off-putting for some. But to see this much so clearly and in such a short time. Its a bargain.
Flight is showing at the National Theatre, Olivier. Box office: 0171 928 2252
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