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A CurtainUp London Review
Flight, a Play in Eight Dreams

by Joseph Green

Mikhail Bulgakov, whose reputation rests largely on his narrative work, particularly The Master and Margarita, was a physician during the Russian revolution who, like Chekhov, turned to writing. Bulgakov's work, however, ran afoul of the Bolshevik authorities and during the early 20s his plays were banned in Russia.

Although Bulgakov had several plays produced under Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre, his work did not come to international notice until well after his death in 1940. He is perhaps best known for his last novel, The Master and Margarita published in 1966, a quarter-century after his death.

Flight, a Play in Eight Dreams, was first produced in 1957 in Volgograd and only now comes to the English-speaking stage in this huge adaptation by Ron Hutchinson at the Royal National Theatre's Olivier stage. Alan Howard leads a cast numbering well over thirty in the role of Roman Khludov, the sardonic but wise White Army Chief of Staff, in a star performance.

Howard Davies sweeping production was designed by Tim Hatley utilizing the whole of the Olivier's immense stage. What at first appears to be a solid rear wall opens in numerous configurations to reveal ever more impressive locales. The scenes in Constantinople and the apartment in Paris are especially impressive in their color and texture while the railway waiting room converted to an army field hq is no less so in its monochrome nuances.

Each "dream" is an independent scene (Flight is played with one intermission) which depicts another frequently farcical vision of the plays's central action: the route and escape of the White Russian army and its ragtag civilian followers in the face of the Reds onslaught in 1920.

The action moves from the interior of the Crimea to the seaport of Sevastopol to across the sea to Constantinople to Paris and back to Constantinople -- talk about your epic drama! It follows the retreat and emigration of the White Army through this series of eight comic/horrific episodes. Filled with comic irony but imbued with pathos, Flight speaks to the futility of this civil war -- and indeed all wars. Polemic in nature, it is saved by its scale and its epic sweep -- with no small debt to Howard Davies' staging and Tim Hatley's designs.

Could Brecht have seen this broad canvas of the Revolution? With its songs and disjointed plot structure and its direct address?

Flight is a play that only a national theatre, with its vast public support, could mount with the grandeur and scope of the National's production.
Readers might want to check out Elyse Sommer's very positive review of another Bulgakov play Black Snow which enjoyed a brief Off-Broadway run earlier this season.

Flight, a Play in Eight Dreams
by Mikhail Bulgakov
Adapted by Ron Hutchinson
Directed by Howard Davies
Designed by Tim Hatley
Royal National Theatre
Olivier Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (0171-420-0000)
Seen first week of February by Joseph Green

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© Elyse Sommer, March 1998