Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Anastasiya Sosis
The Scenic Route
This is a play, more usually known as Flight, that the author of The Master and Margarita wrote in 1927. It is set a decade earlier when, following the 1917 revolution, when the Red Army was still fighting White Russian and foreign forces.
It was going to be staged at the Moscow Art Theatre but was dropped mid-rehearsal following the murder of the White Russian General on whom one of the main characters was based. Stalin had approved The Days of the Turbins (also known as The White Guard like the novel it is based on), which included a celebration of the Red Army’s victory, but it was not until 1957 that it got a performance.
There have been British productions at Bristol, the Lyric Hammersmith and the National Theatre but this fringe production is different, and not just in scale. In 2015, Ukrainian director Anastasiya Sosis, who had never previously herd of this play, saw a production in Moscow and felt what it presented was very close to her own recent experience in the Ukraine.
She went looking for a copy in a bookshop but what she found was a different text. She describes it as “unedited”. Perhaps that means “uncensored”. Anyway, she preferred it to the version she had seen. She felt she had to stage it and this is her translation.
It has been cut, apparently, both in scale and in length to make a fringe production more manageable but it is still a very complicated story that centres on a couple fleeing from St Petersburg south to the Crimea, their encounter with the White Guard on retreat and subsequent attempts at survival in Istanbul and Paris.
Sergey (Tom Dayton) is a philosophy student who encounters Serafima (Anna Danshina) at St Petersburg station as they both leave the city. Travelling with false papers, she is following her bureaucrat husband who has already left for the Crimea. They have now reached a monastery in the south where monks, refugees and a woman about to give birth under a blanket runs out to be a Cossack officer given the wrong forged papers.
Though a monk still tries to collect alms, it is a place of panic and confusion. Trains still seem to be running but quite how people got there or how they move on is a mystery. Sergey has clearly fallen for Serafima and sees himself as her protector.
Escaping the Reds who found them, the couple and Cossack General Charnota (Cyril Blake) reach a White Army unit under General Khludov (Matthew Duckett) who behaves like a madman: the bodies strung up on telegraph poles are men he had executed. He doesn’t trust anyone and, when the man who is actually Korzukhin (Lucas Sokolowski), Serafima’s husband, arrives claiming he’s a government minister and seeking priority for a van load of fur coats, Khludov orders their burning.
There’s satire here of ineffectual intelligentsia, self-serving clergy, corruption, privilege and escalating violence, with a glimmer of humanity in Sergey’s caring for Serafima and some kindness from Charnota’s wife Lucy (Clare Gillman), but Sosis’s production puts the emphasis on the confusion, the panic and mindless killing, then is suddenly surreal as Khludov comes face to face with a soldier who seems to embody the souls of all those he has killed.
How the main characters escape the Crimea and get abroad isn’t explained but after the interval they turn up in Istanbul/Constantinople. Charnota is trying to sell clockwork toys on the streets or raise some money for his military equipment. His wife has turned to prostitution. Betting on a cockroach race provides a wild hope of getting some money (with the punters playing their own cockroaches) and it is from this, together with Khludov’s comparison of the state of Russia with a childhood memory of cockroaches scurrying from the light, that Sosis gets the play’s new title.
Meanwhile, Korzukhin has made his way to Paris and become a rich man. The others seek him out there. Gambling gets money out of him and they talk of going back to Russia, even though for Khludov that might mean execution.
Sosis’s translation seems very literary at times that is matched by the formality of the simple staging (mainly a matter of images to represent location hung before a draped backing). Lighting creates atmosphere rather than location and the sounds of marching soldiers and tolling church bells suggest what’s just off-stage.
While some performances are more naturalistic, others offer class stereotypes, though playing moves fluently between the two. The bridge into Khludov’s surreal scenes is delicately handled (with Nick Marsh as the enigmatic soldier), while those involving Korzukhin are broadly comic. The focus is always on the actors who deliver boldy (no mumbling from this cast), their mixture of accents suggesting the vast stretch of the Russian empire.
This is a play that covers a lot of territory and this production feels full of lacunae. The first half all confusion, the second perhaps over simplified. Perhaps a fuller text would fill the gaps in and make it clearer what Bulgakov is saying.
Does Cockroaches parallel situations now, a century after the time that it is set in? Sosis feels it does but as presented here it seems to be a play about people whose social situation and privileged positions made them unable to cope with the day to day life of the ordinary worker, not about the plight of refugees who are forced to flee.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton