If proof were required of the need for public subsidy of our flagship theatrical institutions, then Howard Davies's production of Mikhail Bulgakov's epic satire of the Russian Civil War is a fine example of the National staging a play that would probably elude smaller companies.
Where else would there be the imagination to bring to life what probably reads pretty lumpliy on the page (praise for Ron Hutchinson's liberal translation); where else would designer Tim Hatley have the resources to summon up a Russian monastery, an army intelligence office in Sebastopol, a Constantinople souk and a Parisian study?
Written in 1927, Bulgakov's piece was banned because it had no Bolshevik hero and portrayed the human tragedy of the Czarist White Guard's defeat at the hand of the Reds, rather than its ideological failure.
It is indeed the human loss of lives caught in the crossfire that hits home: at the opening worshippers' voices swell exquisitelyin church, cut short by bombs and machine gun fire. As the Whites are forced to retreat, and off the Crimean peninsular, the emigrés are spread across Europe, largely into penury.
In a series of eight "dreams" Bulgakov creates a range of experience, from Alan Howard's languid, murderous chief of staff dogged by the wisecracking ghost of a man he hanged, to Kenneth Cranham's gambling fighter. There is also a love story as hapless student Golubkhov (an appealing performance by Michael Mueller) - who ended up in the Crimea after returning his library books in St. Petersburg - searches for the neglected young wife of a slimy minister.
Their problems seem to be solved when Cranham's Charnota wins at cards the fortune of Minister Korzukin. This is a scene of high farce before a giant safe, played out with comic genius by Nicholas Jones.
Of course, in true socialist style, the by now desperate emigrés reject the cash for the chance to return to their homeland (so what were the authorities complaining about?).
Davies's production definitely has its longueurs in the first half, but once cast adrift the various protagonists' stories are woven in a magical fashion.
Ham & High (Hampstead & Highgate Express) 27.2.98.