The horrors of war are well-documented - but the humour of war? Not much about that. Unless you're Mikhail Bulgakov, that is. In Bulgakov's account of the flight of White Russian emigrés at the end of the Russian civil war, farce is the order of the day. Or more precisely, the lack of order. The characters in this epic tale have no exercise over their individual will as their actions, movements and very survival is determined by nothing more than chance.
During the four scenes - or 'dreams' - of the first act, we follow the hapless, rag-tag band of civilians and soldiers as they race through the Crimea, the blood-thirsty Red Army on their tails and the Russian Empire in tatters. Aside from their armbands and claims to victory or defeat, there's little to distinguish the Whites from the Reds. Both are equally arbitrary with acts of violence.
None more so than the White General Khludov (Alan Howard) who hands out executions with delicious, psychotic ease. Have no doubt about it, either, Howard plays a great madman. With a sinister voice that snakes down your spine and a Beavis-and-Butthead laugh, he becomes more and more endearing even as he terrifies, slipping further into insanity.
He is joined by a wonderful assortment of sadistic freaks. Geoffrey Hutchings is hilarious, hopping around the stage as Tikhi, Chief of White Counter-Intelligence, with a plumber's chip on his shoulder. And Peter Blythe delivers handsomely as Commander in Chief of the White Army with a gargantuan ego and fixation on 'incompetent punctuation.'
Sadly, the play loses a lot of its momentum and credibility in the second act which takes the action to Constantinople and Paris. Perhaps refugees in exile are just not as funny as they are in retreat? Or perhaps the scenes are not as vivid because Bulgakov never left Russia himself? Even the characters seem to realise that the real action is back in the Mother Country; at the end, several make moves to return despite the promise of almost certain death.
Despite this failing, director Howard Davies has an extremely evocative production on his hands. And one that rings ultra-modern, especially in Ron Hutchinson's new, very British translation (lots of buggery slang). All elements pay tribute to Bulgakov's 'subversive' belief that laughter was the only correct response to the chaos of the times. When he died in 1940, the bulk of his plays and novels were still unseen and unpublished. Thank heavens for the National and posthumous pleasures.