Mikhail Bulgakov translated and adapted by Howard Colyer
Ballast Theatre
The Jack Studio Theatre

David Bromley (left) and Michael Edwards (right) Credit: Jon Bradshaw
Callum Cameron (Miles Le Versha - background) Credit: Jon Bradshaw

When I interviewed Howard Colyer some eight months ago, a production of his adaption of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Flight at The Jack Studio Theatre was already in the pipeline.

This story of an unlikely cohort of Russians fleeing together into Turkey and beyond during the final throes of the Civil War had had a reading at The New Diorama where, he said, its resonance with modern-day Syria was apparent.

Bulgakov’s play has been trimmed down significantly but it nonetheless captures the inexorable chaos of a country as a collection of regions under inconstant control, where the choice for warring factions between “a suicidal last stand”, retreat, or surrender and death drives all sides into acts of inhumanity.

Then as now the outside world distances itself and the refugees find themselves impelled to exchange one blighted life for another—exploitation, desperate gambling, prostitution or insanity, anything to get by.

The turbulent social situation and the epic journeys of the refugees across from Crimea to central Europe are difficult to represent with any sense of scale but here it matters little as the focus of Flight is the characters, their interdependency and the intertwining of the relationships.

It is a dark and discomfiting watch but Colyer has retained the black humour of the original and the frequently changing scenes, or more accurately dreams as Bulgakov termed them, effected busily with much moving of furniture reflects the unrelentingly unsettled nature of refugee life, matched by Kemey Lafond’s set design with its backdrop of trunks and suitcases.

Watching this production of Flight it is easy to understand why the authorities banned the play. It is not because it is so obvious to contemporary audiences that the work is anti-Soviet but because the then so called White Émigrés have an admirable fortitude and nobility about them, and Bulgakov resisted Stalin’s requirement to add further dreams to create a pro-Bolshevik message.

When chance ricochets in favour of the refugees for once and money gives them the freedom to choose their own fates, there is something defiant and dignified about their choices. Even ex-officers Charnota and Khludov, who almost certainly face a painful death, raise a toast to “May it be quick”—it gives the play an unexpected uplifting ending.

There is a strong performance from David Bromley as the vicious White Counter-Intelligence Officer and Nadia Shash has notable presence as the Narrator and in other roles. Michael Edwards makes a good fist of the role he took over at very short notice, that of Khludov, the White’s Chief of Staff haunted to the edge of insanity by ghosts of men he has killed, saying something for the indomitability of the human spirit.

Howard Colyer’s adaptations of Marriage and Boris Godunov may be seen at The Jack Studio Theatre later in the year.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti

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