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Posts Tagged ‘Mikhail Bulgakov’

Well, Complicite have staged the unstageable! I still don’t understand it, but it’s a theatrical feast nonetheless, though at 3 hours 15 mins maybe a bit too much food!

Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel isn’t about a school teacher with a penchant for Mexican cocktails, though if that were also woven into the two stories of Satan visiting Moscow and Pontius Pilate’s remorse and regret, it probably would fit perfectly well. It is impossible and indeed pointless to offer much of a description, so I will just say it’s a fantasy and a satire and anyone who tells you they understand it is probably lying, or showing off, or both……

The reason for seeing it is that Complicite have chosen it as their most ambitious work yet and, lack of understanding aside, it is an extraordinary piece of staging. Much of this is due to the giant video projections of Third Company Limited, more used to projects like Elton John’s Las Vegas show, the Batman Arena event and  U2’s 360 tour. These amazing visuals sit comfortably with the more minimalist imaginative staging and performance style we have become used to from Complicite and Simon McBurney.

It’s great to see Paul Rhys again and there are some excellent performances from Richard Katz, Angus Wright, Tim McMullan, Ajay Naidu and Cesar Sarachu (who on Monday got into a pickle trying to get his loincloth on!) but I did find Sinead Matthews a little OTT as she was in A Dolls House at the Young Vic. There’s a puppet cat which looks like it walked out of a cartoon and the closing image of a projection of the cast on stage with chairs forming a giant horse is simply breathtaking.

Go for the stagecraft and inventiveness rather than for a good old yarn and you’ll probably spend a lot of the evening with your mouth open in wonder.

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When they first read the play, I would imagine the reaction was ‘how are we going to stage this?’, such is the cinematic quality of the writing – not surprising given the playwright seems to have only ever done screenplays before. Well, I suppose if anyone was going to pull it off, it would be Nicholas Hytner (with help from Bob Crowley’s clever set with four entrances – and what seems like a lot of dangerous angles).

The starting point is of course true. Stalin liked Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard (brilliantly staged at the National just last year) which led to him being asked (?) to write something about Stalin. Beyond this, much is speculation and fantasy in John Hodge’s play. Stalin ends up writing most of the play about his early life while Bulgakov runs the country, benefiting from Stalin’s patronage to a point where it is almost Faustain.

This is all surprisingly entertaining and often funny (though it gets darker in the second half) with lots of short scenes interrupted by flash forward rehearsal scenes of the play what they are writing. Of course, when you have Alex Jennings as Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale as Stalin, two of our best actors at the height of their powers, you’ve got a head start and both deliver the goods bigtime. Mark Addy is also outstanding as a secret service officer / intermediary and there’s excellent support from Nick Sampson as a doctor, William Postlethwaite (the late great Peter’s son)  as idealistic young writer Grigory and Pierce Reid as Sergei, who inhabits the Bulgakov’s kitchen cupboard in true Bulgakov fashion!

It’s a fascinating picture of the mechanics of a tyranny and in particular Stalin’s. He only has to think of something and its done. There are acts of extraordinary generosity as well as vile deeds – everything, of course, for a reason. There is much depth to the characterisations of Bulgakov and Stalin and their mutually dependent relationship is intriguing.

At last a new play at the National worthy of the venue’s stature.

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