Theatre: When in doubt, try epic irony

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BIG THEATRES need big stories and Flight takes one of the century's biggest. Mikhail Bulgakov's play in "eight dreams" - never performed in his lifetime - follows the White Russians' retreat to the ports of the Crimea and then on to Constantinople and Paris. There's nothing navel- gazing about Bulgakov's vision. And Howard Davies's bravura production at the National fills the Olivier with a heftiness, breadth and taste for the absurd that is recognisably Russian. Tragedy lapses into farce: in crazy times, Bulgakov suggests, epic irony may be the only correct response.

Designer Tim Hatley has built a spectacular wall - a matrix of grey rectangles - that dominates the Olivier like a cliff-face. He has filled the squares with windows, lanterns, crosses, candles, lights that explode and electric leads that fizzle and crackle like sparklers. Actors climb up and down and in and out of this hazardous edifice, which towers over them, heightening their ant-like vulnerability.

In Ron Hutchinson's salty, colloquial adaptation, chance also predominates. Are they White soldiers or Red soldiers storming the monastery? Will they shoot now or later? In the chaos, everyone's identity is up for grabs. A general pretends to be a pregnant woman, an archbishop a chemist; once in exile, the archbishop becomes a tipster for cockroach races, the general a balloon-seller, then a millionaire.

Bulgakov doesn't use the eight "dreams" as a trip into the subconscious. They're a shorthand technique for skipping the dull and plausible, and catching randomness and absurdity, cartoon-like characters and sudden fluctuating tones. Soldiers at the army HQ bang at their typewriters like automata and the combination safe in a Paris study looks bigger than a wardrobe. The head of counterintelligence breaks into a waltz with the woman he is interrogating. A dead orderly returns to dog the general who sentenced him to death. This is a play about people on the run that never lets both feet touch the ground.

Alan Howard plays Kludov, the White Army chief of staff, known as the Butcher of the Crimea. Howard likes parts with swagger. Here, the coat trails down to his boots, the collar reaches up to his sideburns, the eyes narrow and the lips curl with measured disdain. "I might be going down with something," he mutters. Yes, with the rest of the White Army. Howard's magnificent fatigue includes lizard-like flicks of the head and a reedy marcato delivery. He is well matched by Kenneth Cranham as the White Army's General Charnota, a craggy, leathery figure, who - in the evening's best scene - goes a dozen rounds of cards with Nicholas Jones's svelte emigre, Korzukhin. The card game spirals into a sublimely choreographed sequence of physical contortions as the two of them twist in ecstasies of horror and glee. The bumbling innocent in all this is Michael Mueller's beady academic, Golubkov, who pops up, Zelig-like, in scene after scene. Peter Blythe is a smoothly preposterous commander-in-chief who wants a man shot for his poor prose style. And Geoffrey Hutchings, the incisive chief of counter-intelligence, has the injured pride of the ex-plumber who knows everyone under- appreciates him until they need one.

On the downside, the women's roles - Abigail Cruttenden as the wife in search of her husband and Rachel Power as Charnota's lover - pale in comparison. Nor was I convinced that the cast had spent any time in rehearsals with this play's favoured creature, the cockroach. And the bazaar in Constantinople was only a notch above what you might get in a panto. Otherwise, this is a Flight worth catching.

At the Lyric Hammersmith, artistic director Neil Bartlett follows his searching reevaluations of Somerset Maugham's The Letter and Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession with Terence Rattigan's last play, Cause Celebre. In the 1930s a 38-year-old woman had an affair with a 17-year-old - whether you call him a "boy" or "young man" betrays your own viewpoint. When the woman ended the relationship, her lover murdered her 68-year-old husband. One of them was sentenced to death, the other committed suicide.

If Rattigan's theme is double standards, then his structure rests on parallelism. Rattigan splits the stage, runs concurrent scenes and juggles the chronology as he interweaves the story of Alma and George with the story of juror Mrs Davenport and her son. Bartlett and his regular designer Rae Smith present us with a Thirties Britain: on one side the restraining forces of Court Number One at the Old Bailey and matrons in beige cardigans in mansion flats. On the other side, sex. Bartlett and Smith use deft, expressionistic touches. A piercing bell rings out, the gavel hammers on and on, the arc lights glare with clinical whiteness. Londoners crowd a door frame and shout abuse. Coat hooks and two mirrors stand for the robing room. A gramophone needle skids off an old 78.

The legal eagles are silken and predatory. They come over as rival spin- doctors, trading versions of events. As Alma's counsel, Neil Stacy balances persuasion with bullying as he folds his glasses in his fingers, slams the table or holds up his index finger for a pivotal "But ..." As Croom- Johnson KC, Terry Taplin scowls and grunts, and taunts Alma with details designed to shock the jurors. And John Quentin makes for a cadaverous judge who instructs them with stony scrupulousness.

Husky-voiced Amanda Harris is perfect as Alma. She's naturally seductive, as she demonstrated at the RSC when she played Titania. At the Old Bailey she pushes back her loose blonde hair to reveal mascara that is as generously applied as her lipstick. As George, Laurence Mitchell makes painfully clear, "I'm not going to stop loving her now." The relationship is wholly convincing.

I've a hunch most Shakespeare productions would be best seen at the last run-through in the rehearsal room before the designs, lighting, music, costumes and stage effects turn the actors' work into something else. At the Orange Tree, Sam Walters's Macbeth keeps concept, commentary and interpretation to the minimum. His emphasis is on psychological clarity.

The venue is the challenge here. It's small and in the round. Perfect for eavesdropping on drawing-room intimacies, trickier for big speeches. The actors play 24 parts with commendable precision. Paul Shelley's unshaven Macbeth dominates, a smiling and tactile figure, suggesting from early on a personality split between public affability and private anguish. His is a Macbeth - certainly in the schools' matinee performance I saw - with a welcome mission to explain his thoughts. In these close quarters, Shelley looked as if he might give up Scotland itself for a couple more yards on his entrances and exits.

The more abstract the staging, the more effective it is: the static triangular exchange when Macduff learns that his family has been slaughtered; the spotlights on Macbeth as he speaks to each of the ghosts; the stylised murders and battle sequences in which wounds are inflicted without any physical contact.

'Flight': Olivier, SE1 (0171 928 2252), in rep; 'Cause Celebre': Lyric, W6 (0181 741 2311), to 4 Apr; 'Macbeth': Richmond Orange Tree (0181 940 3633), to 4 Apr.