Magazine article The Spectator

Pageant of Retreat

Magazine article The Spectator

Pageant of Retreat

Article excerpt

Flight (National Theatre)

Cause Celebre (Lyric Hammersmith)

Macbeth (Orange Tree, Richmond)

One of the requirements, indeed designations, of a national theatre that is not to disintegrate into a museum, as have so many elsewhere in Europe, is that it should introduce us to major and sometimes epic work which no other stage in the land could afford or consider. On that one, the jury is still out on the new Trevor Nunn regime on the South Bank; neither his new Enemy of the People nor Peter Pan are exactly rediscoveries, and the announcement of a forthcoming Oklahoma! for the summer and a Private Lives to celebrate the Coward centenary next year is frankly more than a little depressing in its weary, play-safe familiarity.

But we do now, on the open Olivier stage, have Bulgakov's Flight and this is precisely what the National should be doing. Written in 1926 by the great Russian author of The Master and Margarita, this one was all too predictably banned by Stalin and only resurfaced long after the author's death in 1940. Essentially it's an epic black comedy in eight episodes, subtitled 'dreams', through which we follow a group of White Russians on the run from the 1918 civil war but still dreaming of a return to the homeland. Other playwrights and screenwriters have had their fun with White Russians in exile, but Bulgakov has the courage of a vast odyssey, so that we follow these no-hopers through Constantinople and into Paris as, increasingly desperate, they take up crime and cockroach-racing and gambling in an attempt to restore lost family fortunes.

Alan Howard in magnificent lassitude heads the troupe of losers on the run, and in Howard Davies's superbly spectacular production the new Ron Hutchinson translation crackles with energy. Hopelessly underpowered, ill and wildly impractical, this gypsy band drifts across the democratic world trying to find lost identities, a living, or maybe just some distant relative to offer them bed and board until the next revolution, the one that never came.

Bulgakov's genius was to tell a civil war story of death and horror with an amazing amount of bleak and black humour; just as we start to feel sorry for these exiles on the run, we are shown how utterly hopeless they will always be at rebuilding any kind of a life. They have left it too late to join a winning team for which they are anyway disqualified by birth, see no point in staying with the losers, but are at the same time unable to survive outside the disciplines of Russia at war with herself. This is a pageant of retreat, about people who wander and lust but cannot deal with wanderlust. …

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