Mikhail Bulgakov’s Flight, translated by Howard Colyer, follows the fortunes of a small group of Russians as they flee the Crimea, finding temporary exile firstly in Paris, then in Constantinople. It was never performed in the lifetime of the playwright, due to censorship opposition from Stalin.
Considering that the Brockley Jack theatre is so small, the performers do well to translate the epic narrative of the story with its changes in location, period and mood. This is helped by the design of Kemey Lafond, who has hung a dozen suitcases from a washing line across the back of the stage, and has piled crates and pieces of wooden board across the back of the stage to create a room full of flexible items that can be rearranged to represent any kind of space. This is effective in allowing the actors to rearrange the set themselves, giving the audience the sense that they, as an ensemble, are packing up and travelling to another location.
The problems of this production lie in its script. The journey from the Crimea to Constantinople is littered with the characters that the small group of Russians meet along the way, meaning that although most of the actors do a stellar job of multi-roling, few of them are given a chance to explore emotional depth or to work on individual character development.
Colyer’s translation is also extremely wordy, a hindrance to the actors trying to portray the genuine fear of their flight from the Crimea. It is in the moments of silence or inhuman noise that the actors are given a chance to really show off: crying, trembling and screaming with aplomb. The fact that much of the script consists of guards asking civilians to “see your papers” does not help. The star turn of the show comes from Michael Edwards’s Khludov, one of the main Russian authoritarians and a malcontent figure. He is somewhat shaky on his lines, but delivers them with power and authority. Considering he was asked to step into the part but a few days ago (as the front of house staff told me!), he fares remarkably well, showing off his calm and controlled energy as a performer.
It is disappointing, in a play supposedly about fear, to see that most of the guard staff hide the potential for genuinely scary performances behind their uniforms, resulting in them being unremarkably threatening. It is only David Bromley’s interrogator who is truly frightening: clad in leather and with a threatening and expressive face, he takes great relish in telling his interviewee about the ‘severed finger’ necklace he keeps in the basement, as a trophy of all of the state secrets he has extracted through violence.
This is a watchable play: a decent testament to the flight from the Crimea that gives a sensitive portrayal of the many innocent civilians wrongly victimised. However, it is directed, designed and performed in an extremely safe format. It would have been more interesting to see the director and actors take the classical script and use it as a platform to explore some more alternative performance formats.
Flight is running at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 1 February. For more information and tickets, please visit the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre website.