Audiences who buy tickets to the National Theatre thinking they will get a rare chance to see a play by Mikhail Bulgakov should be warned; this 'version' by Andrew Upton bears only a passing resemblance to Bulgakov's Days of the Turbins on which it is based. Like his 'version' of Gorky's Philistines which I disliked three years ago, this is directed by Howard Davies with Bunny Christie responsible for the design. Anyone who enjoyed that production will probably enjoy this one too, while my reservations are exactly the same as in 2007. Like Gorky, Bulgakov is a great writer whose plays are revived here only rarely. He deserves better than to have his work mangled by a passing Australian who seems determined to improve on the original in the way 18th century playwrights rewrote Shakespeare. I don't want to repeat everything I said in my review of the Gorky play, but Upton seems to regard the original text as mere raw material which he can manipulate as he chooses. It would be more honest to put his own name on the play and describe it as 'based on' Bulgakov. In his programme note he describes the play as 'a genuine inquiry into the revolution' -- which shows how little he understands Bulgakov and the circumstances in which he was writing. Bulgakov, writing in the Soviet 1920s, knew that 'a genuine inquiry into the revolution' was the one thing he couldn't possibly write. So he omits the Bolsheviks entirely and sets his play in Kiev during the 1918-1919 civil war between the White Guard Russian officers, their temporary allies the German army, and the insurgent Ukrainian peasant army of Petlyura. Only at the end of the play do the Bolsheviks capture Kiev, an event signified in Bulgakov's stage directions by the sound of the Internationale coming from offstage. It's typical of Upton's cavalier adaptation that he omits this key moment. Upton says he 'decided to uncover more than I expected' because we now live in different times from those in which the play was written. But the changes he makes serve only to blur the meaning of the play where Bulgakov's Russian original is perfectly clear.
Uniforms and who wears them are crucial signifiers of rank and status in a play like this, but what we get on stage is a muddle for which Davies and Christie as director and designer have to share the blame. The Turbin family are Russian-speaking Tsarist officers from Kiev. Aleksei is a 30-year-old artillery colonel, his younger brother Nikolai is just 18, and their brother-in-law Vladimir Talberg is a general staff colonel who is an aide to the Hetman, the puppet ruler of Ukraine installed by the Germans. But in this version Upton takes Talberg out of his uniform from the start and turns him into the deputy minister of war, a politician-diplomat. It may seem a small change but it's an important one, because when Talberg reappears unexpectedly in the second act from his safe exile in Berlin, the impact of him changing into civilian dress is completely lost. His wife Lena transfers her favours to another officer, Leonid Shervinsky, a dashing Guards lieutenant from a cavalry regiment who is the personal adjutant to the Hetman. While Conleth Hill is an excellent actor and his performance as Shervinsky is a commanding one, he bears no resemblance to the young blue-blooded opportunist in Bulgakov's play. He's much too old, and his uniform is all wrong. In fact all the uniforms are out of period. Instead of civil war uniforms, the officers wear khaki tunics that look more like those worn by the Red Army in World War Two. Shervinsky's elite social status is supposed to be indicated by his wearing of a sumptuous 'cherkeska' or Cossack-style uniform, but he's in drab khaki with the addition of some Ruritanian gold braid. Christie's design for the Turbin's apartment is more Kingston-upon-Thames than Kiev, and this seems to be a civil war in which the electric lights blaze almost without interruption. Soon after the start of act one in Bulgakov's original, an officer bursts in to the apartment half-frozen and carrying a rifle, having spent the day in street fighting. But in this version his uniform under his coat is immaculate, and he appears to have dispensed with his rifle. As a result there is no real feeling of the apartment as a haven from the social breakdown and terrifying random violence of a real civil war. Violence erupts later in the play when the scene switches to the battlefield; at Petlyura's army command post soldiers bring in a captive. In the original, he's a Cossack deserter, clearly in uniform, but here he appears as a ragged peasant. In the original, he's despatched for medical treatment for his frostbitten feet, while in Upton's version he gets a bullet in the neck. If Bulgakov had wanted to show Petlyura's men killing a prisoner, he would no doubt have done so, and the change seems gratuitous.
All through the play crucial speeches are either omitted altogether, or rewritten to change their meaning, sometimes by 180 degrees. Aleksei has a big speech in act one in which he makes clear that for the White Guard, what happens in Ukraine is a side-show and he is looking forward to the real battle for Russia with the Bolsheviks. Upton rewrites this so that the real enemy of the Whites is not the Bolsheviks but 'it is the future and I hate it'. In act two, when the officers are debating if and how they can come to terms with Bolshevik rule, Upton invents a an anti-war speech for Lena which is nowhere in Bulgakov's original. Her relationships with her husband and Shervinsky are also altered significantly. In act one of the original, she describes a dream about a ship and a prison and rats. Shervinsky compares her husband to a rat leaving a sinking ship, but this line is omitted. Also left out is his attempt to take Lena with him to Berlin as his 'fiancee'. When Talberg reappears in act two, Lena tells him to his face that she intends to divorce him, but in Upton's version the impact of this is softened because she only says it after he has left. While Bulgakov certainly intended some of the scenes to be funny, particularly those with the Ukrainian Hetman and the German officers, this production swings the lever too far towards jokiness and the search for easy laughs. The result has unfortunate echoes of 'Allo Allo'.
A few weeks ago I blogged about the inability of British actors to pronounce Russian names properly. In this production most of the names come out reasonably well, with the stress on the right syllables, but there is a glaring exception. Poor Aleksei has his name stretched to four syllables, with his sister Lena the worst culprit, pronouncing it Aleksi-ei. After hearing his name repeatedly mispronounced, Aleksei expires on stage well before the end of act two. Just for the record, in Russian it's pronounced as it's written: Aleksei. Three syllables.
As this play is still in previews, there's plenty of time to correct that particular mistake, but I fear it is too late to revise the flawed overall approach. I look forward to one day seeing the play more or less as Bulgakov wrote it -- it would be a lot better.