Posts Tagged ‘Bulgakov’

Morphine, Etcetera Theatre 7 February

February 8, 2017



Picture from Anna Denshina’s Twitter feed

So let’s think–what problems might there be with staging Bulgakov’s ‘Morphine’, about a country doctor who falls victim to…err…morphine? Well, putting a non-dramatic work on the stage is always problematic–if the author had wanted to write a play he’d have done things differently. And especially in a case like the present, where the original text is in the first person and reflects the hero’s diseased apprehension of reality more than actual happenings between people. The latter is where you need to have things in a play. Here we also have some more objective narration from ‘Notes of a young doctor’ brought in to set the scene as well.

That said, the show combined the Russian tradition of having music in lots of places where you don’t want it with the English one of having characters shuffle on, deliver their lines through a mask of embarrassment, and then shuffle of again. The cast members showed various levels of comfort with appearing on stage and the Russian language…that said, I thought that Anna Danshina put in a good and affecting performance as the love interest called Anna.

There were also sutitling issues–the surtitles contained a lot of text at one go and tended to catch up after the event.  But I suspect the proportion of the audience who neither knew Russian nor the storyline of ‘Morphine’ was rather small…

Flight, Brockley Jack 15 January

January 19, 2014


I  think that this production would give you an idea of what the play by Bulgakov was about without being the thing itself.  The action follows a group of assorted characters during the Russian Civil War as they flee from the Red Army through the Crimea and on to Constantinople and even Paris–the title is flight as in ‘run away’, not ‘flap wings’.  The play was never actually staged in Bulgakov’s lifetime, though it did appear in the Soviet Union from the 1970s.  It’s meant to be the typical Bulgakov grotesque comedy, where the characters are both…er…grotesque and pitiable, but here it was all far too matter-of-fact.

For instance, great play is made of the row of victims the Whites have hanged at the railway station where the early scenes occur, and when I last saw the play in 1992 or thereabouts we did indeed have a line of draped figures with nooses around their necks.  Here we had suitcases.  Suitcases.  Well, OK, suitcases.  Or maybe trunks.

And the playing was generally at the phlegmatic one-thing-after another level:  the one exception was Michael Edwards, a late replacement in the part of Khludov, the White Chief of Staff tormented by his past atrocities.  Even though he wasn’t necessarily word-perfect all the time, he did at least manage to play at the right emotional level.  I sometimes thought he was playing George Gordon, Lord Byron at the right emotional level, but he got a great deal nearer to what was required than anybody else.

Without asking for a naturalistic portrayal of Russian mores, you need to ask yourself:  What kind of people would say and do these things?  Consequently, In what manner would that kind of people say and do these things?  The plodding regularity of the action also meant that nothing was emphasised and nothing was a surprise…

I’m not going to complain about the White Minister of Trade and Industry speaking French badly, or about the soldiers and officers failing to move and bear themselves like soldiers and officers.

At least the actors were not made to speak with comedy Russian accents this time.  Turkish and Hungarian-Irish, maybe…

See here for what I know about other Russian plays on in London.

“A Dog’s Heart” at ENO: Selected Passages From Correspondence With My Friends

December 24, 2010

Not a doggy dog

This was certainly a good Theatre de Complicite show, and managed to avoid any unfortunate accidents with foreign alphabets.  As an adaptation of Bulgakov, it focused on making effective stage effects and moments out of the action, and so rather skated over the *meaning* of the action.  As an opera, the first half wasn’t, while the second was  more encouraging.

The production was spectacular, the music mostly just mildly irritating and irrelevant to the action – although I do keep thinking of the ‘rough’ dog voice.  As for the meaning, it seemed pretty objectionable to me.  But not having read the original, I can’t say whether that was due to a loss of nuance in the production.

Maybe ‘meaning’ isn’t the right word.  If you want a take-home message then you’d probably object more to the original, since it’s more sympathetic to Prof Preobrazhensky and the dog Sharik and totally hostile to the newly-created Sharikov.

But nuance is what is missing.   As is typical for Bulgakov, the precision of the language creates a very clear and ‘realistic’ picture of the main characters and their relationships, which provides a solid basis or framework for the grotesque elements.  Here the normal is missing–in Bulgakov, Sharik is a very doggy dog, while here he’s something strange from the beginning.

If Bulgakov’s text  had ever been published, part of the interest for a contemporary readership would have been in the detailed evocation of a settled, prosperous way of life–‘The Russia we have lost’.  But again we didn’t get much normality here. Then again, positive themes such as the devotion that Sharik and Bormental feel for Preobrazhensky, and his paternal care for the members of his household, are discarded

They also threw away the theme of inside v outside, which is very typical of Bulgakov (and Russian literature in general).  Think of ‘The White Guard’ at the National for instance.  Since B. was essentially a dramatist, and only took to writing stories because he couldn’t get his plays performed, the fact that once the dog is in the flat all the action takes place there must mean something.  In principle, the action was ‘inside’ here, but with people coming in through the wallpaper and a chorus of doctors appearing the ‘inside’ effect was lost.

Spectacular, but is it ‘inside’?

Janacek would have made a bloody good opera out of this text, but I’m afraid it was rather beyond Aleksandr Raskatov.  Although this is an opera by a Russian composer on a Russian text it hasn’t (as yet) been put on there, and I don’t think it would go down very well.

You might say that this show does for Bulgakov what the Bolshoi’s recent  Eugene Onegin did for Tchaikovsky–the difference is that Bulgakov, and in particular how to interpret the present situation in the light of his texts, is still very much a live issue.  Still a long time to go before ceremonial pissing on his corpse is a popular option!

… I don’t think they entirely lost the inside/outside thing.  The invasion of the safe, comfortable inside world seemed quite effective to me.  And I thought the dog was surprisingly doggy – I think that’s why I liked the voice.

The  idea of Sharik having two voices is interesting, since he’s the only character whose thoughts figure in the text–the rest are seen from the outside.  This is more my idea of Sharik (from the 1988 film):

That’s a nice dog…

Both the essay by James Meek and my Bulgakov Encyclopedia want to make someone stand for Lenin/Trotsky but they can’t agree on who–for Meek it’s Preobrazhensky when he decides to operate on the dog while for the BE it’s Sharikov when he pulls the revolver on Bormental and declares he’s going to show everyone what’s what.

The text dates from the height of the New Economic Policy in 1925 which allowed private enterprise and led to some strange consequences (which are satirised in Preobrazhensky having an operating theatre in his flat–that is in itself a joke, like the sex strike in Lysistrata say).  Also at that time the Communist government didn’t seem particularly united or likely to survive.  But the opera sets the action in the Stalin period–presumably because that’s all the stupid Dutch/English are thought able to recognise–which makes nonsense of Preobrazhensky threatening to emigrate or being able to play one faction off against another.

I think if I had to give an interpretation it would be in terms of two parallel actions.  Firstly Preobrazhensky (representing let’s say the Russian educated classes, who were firmly opposed to the Tsarist regime) introduces alien elements into the starving but good-hearted masses (Sharik), with the result that they turn into something nasty.  But Sharikov swiftly rises to an important position in the Moscow feline elimination hierarchy and acquires a leather jacket as well, while his donor Chugunkin was merely a scrote who scraped a living playing the balalaika  in low dives.  The difference is that Sharikov has also had alien elements implanted by Shvonder in the form of the Engels-Kautsky correspondence and suchlike.  He is–the revolutionary proletariat are–low-lives further spolied by having half-digested ideas above their station.

So the educated classes need to shoulder their responsibilities and undo the harm they have caused.  (If you want to be properly offended, note that names ending in -er as in Shvonder are regarded as Jewish in Russia.) Still, Bulgakov practised what he preached–he stayed in Russia while the rest of his family emigrated…

The White Guard (Mikhail Bulgakov) National Theatre 18 March

March 19, 2010


Picture from NT Facebook page

This was–I understood it–the last preview night before the Press Night.  And rather than being Bulgakov’s own play (The Days of the Turbins) it was a new adaptation by Andrew Upton of his novel (The White Guard).  In search of ultimate cheapness, we were sitting in the second row from the front, and it was certainly a bit loud on occasions!  And the performances were clearly aimed at somewhere a bit further back, as well.

The play began in the Turbins’ apartment, which looked rather like the set for the National’s Philistines a couple of years ago, but painted in lighter colours (my companion felt she had also seen it in Three Sisters).  At the start I wasn’t really sure that I believed in the characters–I thought that Kevin Doyle as Count Talberg should at least have suggested someone who might be Deputy Minister of War at the beginning and then crumbled away, rather than being Basil Fawlty from the start.  There were many occasions where the director had half-understood Russian customs, which was more distracting than if he had ignored them entirely.  And if the actors find they can’t pronounce for instance Lyena as in Russian, then it’s better to go for Leyna (as in English) rather than Liyena, which sounds stupid in any language.

There followed a (tragi-)comic interlude in the Hetman’s headquarters when everyone ran away, having seized what valuables they could find.  And the interval.  I told my companion about the production I had once seen in St Petersburg, where the actor playing Nikolka Turbin (18 years old, according to Bulgakov’s dramatis personae) produced an uncannily accurate impersonation of the late Sid James, and she thought that was very funny.

After the interval we had some very loud external scenes of Aleksei Turbin perishing stupidly and the Petlyura band being bandits, after which it was back to the apartment.  I can’t help thinking that it might be better to stay in the Turbin’s apartment and have what happens elsewhere related in messenger speeches (or telephone calls, whatever).  After all, it is the contrast between the apartment and the world outside that is one of the main axes of the play, and the main character is Elena, who turns away from Talberg and the White Guard view of things to accept the new dispensation inthe form of Shervinsky.

So, we got back to the apartment and by this stage the play was working well, with the actors getting near to evincing Russian-style lightning and unprovoked changes of mood and a luminous performance from Justine Mitchell as Elena.

Moliere Finborough Theatre 3 December

December 5, 2009


Dull dull dull dull.  This play–which is supposed to represent Moliere’s status of endangered court favourite as a parallel to author Mikhail Bulgakov’s difficult position in relation to Stalin–completely failed to make any impression on me (but the audience members with loudly-expressed respiratory conditions did).

As Moliere, Justin Avoth was clearly the same age as the putative grand-daughter Armande (Antonia Kinlay) he was going to marry, even if he did limp a bit.  Nor was there any feeling of the demonic energy of  man who could do such a thing; and indeed write, rehearse and present a play in a fortnight.  And Gyuri Sarossy did not give any impression of an absolute monarch deigning to amuse himself with a dubiously-worthy subject for a moment or two.

A lot of care had been lavished on costumes and props, but the actors could or would not pronounce French titles properly, which made for a strange situation when King Louis expressed himself in the French of Stratford-atte-Bowe.

Ben Warwick was effective as the evil Archbishop, and so was Kett Turton as the disloyal Moirron.


Morphia/Морфий BFI LFF 18 October

October 19, 2009


OK, so this was due to start at 9.15.  At 9.15 there was an announcement that the doors would open at 9.30, so I went and browsed in the book and music shops.  The film finally began at 9.45.  Then, a quarter of an hour in, three Russian girls were ushered in bearing voluminous glasses of wine and after lengthy consultations sat in front of us.  Two went to sleep and one conducted urgent (and, to be fair, silent) business on her mobile.  So this неразбериха definitely put me in the mood…

And the film?  Oh that…well, I had many problems with it.  In the stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, the hero first of all comes to terms with his new surroundings and responsibilities in a small (one-doctor) establishment and then after transfer to a large town succumbs to morphine addiction.  Here he was taking morphine from the beginning and also having an affair with Ingeborga Dapkunaite and some other woman from a totally extraneous storyline about a local nest of the gentry.  So that was irritating.

OK, so what of the film itself?  I still didn’t like it.  I enjoyed the historical pornography [Nabokov has a better term for it somewhere] of the detailed depiction of a bygone Russia.  But I didn’t believe the pornographic pornography and Leonid Bichevin’s portrayal of the hero as a typical Soviet bloke succumbing to sex and drugs.  Bulgakov was trying to make the point in Собачье сердце that educated people pre-Revolution behaved differently.  And the sentimental songs that were stuck in everywhere in the true Soviet fashion annoyed me too.

So we had the clever ending where the hero goes into a cinema and shoots himself and Конец appears on the screen of the cinema in the film.  It was half-past eleven and they weren’t turning the lights on, so I gathered my coat and bag from beneath my seat and headed for the bus.  Then I thought that I’d left my scarf behind, but it was too late and I wanted to go home.