"You May Wish to Flee"
by Jim Kelly for remotegoat on 20/01/14

Bulgakov's 1928 satiric epic 'Flight' was banned by Stalin before its first performance. On the strength of this revival at that Brockley Jack Theatre, it may be possible to feel a little sympathy with the dictator's decision.

A disparate group of White Russian soldiers and civilians are pursued into exile, after their final stand against the Red Army disintegrates. They include an aristocratic general - tormented by the ghosts of soldiers he has hanged - a dashing cavalry officer, who is also a chronic gambler; a society wife, abandoned by her politician husband, and the young philosophy professor who falls in love with her. They flee first from Kiev to Constantinople and then onto Paris, through settings as diverse as shelled churches, clogged railway stations, generals' headquarters, the interrogation rooms of secret police forces, bustling bazaars and bijou boudoirs.

Bulgakov's play may well seem unusual to many modern audiences - sagas of this scale are nowadays far more likely to be written for screen than stage - but it can be made to work, as apparently it did in a successful revival at the Olivier in 1998. It certainly contains a number of vivid moments and is potentially very funny. Unfortunately it requires a large cast and eight distinct changes of scene (ill-suited to a stage this small) - as well as steadier direction than is evident here.

This is a pity because this cast is not without talent. Although he leaves a couple of lines behind, Michael Edwards, as the aristocratic Khludov, offers a smart nuanced performance, capturing the general's keen mixture of bitter wit, self-pity and self-disgust. David Bromley in a variety of roles, exudes sinister menace and Declan Cooke, similarly taking several parts, is an intimidating presence.

Howard Colyer's new adaptation is also smooth and unpretentious - though one suspects it might be even leaner. Only one line jarred with me, when a lynched body was described as 'strange fruit' - otherwise, and particularly in the scenes of Khludov's madness, there was a lightness of touch which offered plenty of wiggle room to cast and director.

However the priorities of the direction seem unmatched to either the space or source material. Striking tableaus are created (a boisterous scene of cockroach racing is fun) but they come at the expense of character development, particularly when so much feels rushed. An interrogation scene, which should have been menacing becomes disjointed and hammy. Meanwhile the set, which consists of a number of suitcases hanging 3 or 4 feet above the floor, not only closes down the already limited space, but are too specific not to distract from the churches, stations and markets the audience are invited to imagine as backdrop.

Even so if you are fan of Bulgakov, this is a rare opportunity to revisit a play that Stalin himself took the time to read and criticise. He suggested the addition of Bolshevik friendly scenes. In spite of the limitations of this production - the integrity and wit of the writer who refused to amend his work, can still be heard here.

Other recent reviews by Jim Kelly
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Killing time before killing time by Jim Kelly
Schubert's Winterreise - Alexander Wall tenor with Jamie Thompson piano
Rare performance of Schubert masterpiece by Jim Kelly