The set is made up of suitcases. Battered old cases and trunks piled up anyhow. Temporary, chaotic, makeshift. For this is Russia (or, more accurately these days, the Ukraine) towards the end of the Russian Civil War of 1917-22. This brutal and messy conflict resulted directly in some half a million casualties, half of them civilian, followed by some 3 million deaths from typhus, and more millions from subsequent starvation. There was the Bolshevik Red Army pitted against the loose anti-Bolshevik confederation which made up the White Army; but there was also the Green Army, the Black Army, the British and French army contingents, the German forces and the anarchist/nationalist Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of the Ukraine. Are you following me? Don’t worry. In ‘Flight’ by Mikhail Bulgakov, the confusion is the point.
There are five main characters – Golubkov, a philosopher/academic, Serafima, the wife of a White government minister, Korzukhin her husband, and two White Russian generals Khludov and Charnota. These lives are all intertwined in the bloody mess of retreat and evacuation from the Crimea. From a railway station in Southern Ukraine via Constantinople (as it then was) to exile in Paris, the characters beg, steal, lie, commandeer, sell all their possessions and eventually themselves in order to survive, while the general, Khludov, is haunted by the memory of the thousands he has slaughtered as the Butcher of the Ukraine. As a paradigm of civil war it haunts us to this day.
However, although it has the ring of authenticity, it is also surreal, dreamlike. Indeed, each scene is labelled ‘Dream’. Nothing and nobody is what they seem and the theme of true and false identity links the characters from the opening, where two characters are in disguise. Armies wear each other’s uniforms, Khludov hallucinates people he has shot. Everybody’s sense of identity dissolves. “In what sense do we still exist?” asks Khludov, while Charnota only feels safe when people are shooting at him – safe from himself.
Bulgakov is directly in the tradition of Gogol, and the play is shot through with the blackest of black humour, the only thing which makes it all bearable. At times this is almost Goonish: “[I was talking on the phone] but the conversation ended in an explosion. – He lost his temper? – He was blown up.” I could quote endlessly. This is a beautifully written, densely allusive, insanely funny piece of work. Howard Colyer’s stripped down version has none of the stiffness of a translation. It’s lithe, lively, poetic and an object lesson of its kind.
The production largely plays it straight, which is as it should be. These are ‘ordinary’ people driven to extraordinary shifts by events, and the most absurd situations are driven by a desperate logic. The cast of twelve are a true ensemble, the action flows swiftly and there are no weak links. However, Michael Edwards as Khludov is outstanding. This character carries the weight of the anguish and guilt of the war at its most extreme and he is both haunted and haunting.
At the end of the play, Khludov, Serafima and Golubkov decide to go back to Russia. Whatever horrors await, nowhere else can give them a sense of self and it will be better than “walking, watching, waiting, waiting, waiting”. Bulgakov is a thoroughly humane writer, and all, even the Butcher of the Ukraine, are united as victims and people.
There is no doubt that this is one of the masterpieces of world theatre and in this solid production of a terrific translation it is well worth catching. Go on, step outside your geographic comfort zone. You’ll thank me for it.