THEATRE / This one will run and run: Bulgakov's masterpiece on the emigre experience reaches London at last; plus Diana Rigg's Medea

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The Independent Culture
BANNED IN 1928, Mikhail Bulgakov's Flight had to wait 29 years for its first Soviet performance; and another 36 before its London premiere. Never mind, this is one play that will never go out of date. Somewhere or other, some nation is always tearing itself apart and putting its citizens to flight. Yesterday, refugee Cossacks flogging rubber dolls in the streets of Constantinople; today, Armenian assassins tracked down in London. Bulgakov, who went through 10 civic upheavals in post-revolutionary Kiev, knew all about that: Flight is the masterpiece on the emigre experience.

Its arrival at the Lyric, Hammersmith, coincides with the publication of Anatoly Smeliansky's Is Comrade Bulgakov Dead? (Methuen, pounds 20), a notable sleuthing job by the literary director of the Moscow Art Theatre. It is common knowledge that the MAT called off rehearsals of Flight after the murder of the former White general on whom Bulgakov had based the play's main character, Khludov. Smeliansky now surfaces from the hitherto inaccessible Politburo archives with a document showing that Stalin was closely involved in the

haggling over this 'politically inexpedient' production; and that, finally, it was a deputation of literary zealots from Bulgakov's Ukrainian home-town that persuaded Stalin to bring down the ideological hammer on the author he had previously protected. From that moment, Smeliansky argues, darkness descended on the entire Soviet stage.

Bulgakov's crime was to have written about the Whites as if they were human beings. He got away with it in The Days of the Turbins (which Stalin loved) by celebrating the Bolshevik victory. In Flight, the Red Army is present only as an off-stage hurricane driving the scattered leaves before it - as Khludov's forces are driven back from the Crimea into stateless destitution. Abandoned wives, uncommitted liberals and fleeing priests jostle with the military in a sleepless world of fortified monasteries and railway stations where hanged bodies dangle from the signal boxes.

A woman in labour turns out to be a disguised Cossack officer; a chemist, an archbishop on the run. A man-to-man dispute breaks out between Khludov and an orderly, who abruptly remembers his rank and falls into grovelling apology, at which the general has him executed. Once in exile, generals sink to street trading, middle-class ladies to hustling, and minor civil servants blossom into millionaires. It is a world where everything is mutable except the imperatives of guilt and homesickness.

Gorky defended Flight as an 'excellent comedy'; others labelled it grotesque, or elegiac. But it is futile to try to categorise a piece that deliberately splinters the dramatic categories. A society cracking up is reflected in a cracked mirror. Fixed genres disappear and their characters scramble aboard the theatrical Noah's Ark: satirised clerics and peasantry out of Ostrovsky, idealistic lovers, Gogolesque chancers, and the Dostoevskian figure of the penitent terrorist Khludov. Holding them all together is a dream structure that enables their scattered paths to cross amid recurring biblical echoes and the idea of life as a game of chance - in romantic quotation from The Queen of Spades, farcical revenge over the card table, or the grotesque, all- pervading image of the Constantinople cockroach races.

In Val May's Bristol production of 1972, the title was underscored with wide-screen projections of mass killings and scurrying insects. Such effects are beyond the range of David Graham-Young's studio version. Wendy Tomlinson's one set of shellshocked gilt panelling has to serve for everything from Crimean chaos to Parisian elegance. But there is nothing cut-price about the performances of Max Gold, Steve Hodson and Nicola King; and Peter Tate's Khludov lifts the whole event to a heroic dimension. Do not miss it.

'No one,' complains the Nurse in Medea, 'made up a medicinal music . . . that would ease the terrible pain of living.' Jonathan Kent's production (first seen at the Almeida last year) follows up this suggestion with a chorus (operatically led by Nuala Willis) which comments musically on the events in styles varying from panic-stricken polyphonic jabbering to macabre nursery rhyme; and which treats the rusted iron walls of Peter Davison's set as a percussion instrument.

This remains the show's main strength. The recast male roles (John Turner, Robert Demeger) are better defined. Tim Woodward's Jason has ripened into a mouthwatering target for feminist reprisal, and when Diana Rigg can reach him through irony, her Medea is lethal. 'I could have stood by your bed with pleasure tending your new bride,' she tells him with a coquettish smile. The moment is excruciatingly truthful. But like most of Rigg's best moments, its inflexion is modern and caustic. Where she moves into emotional top gear she has all the technical equipment but not the ability to lift rhetoric into tragedy. However, it is good to see Euripides in the West End.

Huge (an Edinburgh Fringe transfer) brings Ben Miller and Simon Godley together as an ambitious comic partnership that breaks up when one of them finds a job in a TV commercial. The skill of their act (directed by co-author Jez Butterworth) is to take you halfway through the show before realising that one of the boys has no talent whatever, and is coasting along on egoism. The message is that if one thing spells death to a comedian it is the pursuit of laughs divorced from the rest of human experience. There are plenty of laughs here.

Following her acclaimed debut with Foreign Lands, Karen Hope's Ripped is a letdown. A study of two girl prodigies - one a body-building champion, the other a maths wizard - it presents an arresting idea and a potentially fascinating relationship that fails to develop. The situation - father-dominated Laura takes on trainer-dominated Mel as a problem in calculating the shapes of nature - throws up a succession of narrative choices that the play evades. Mel and her trainer are well-characterised and well-researched; Laura and her father are lumbered with toffee-nosed academic speech, and you have to take the maths on trust. Excellent performances by Victoria Harwood and Lindsey Wilson.

'Flight', Lyric, Hammersmith, 081-741 2311. 'Medea', Wyndham's, 071-867 1116. 'Huge', King's Head, 071-226 1916. 'Ripped', Cockpit, 071-402 5081.

(Photograph omitted)

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