Finborough Theatre, London SW10
Opened 26 November, 2009

Mikhail Bulgakov’s play has not been seen in London since 1983, and ran for only seven performances on its Russian première in 1936, four years after he wrote it. This is unsurprisingly because, although its narrative concerns the French comic dramatist and his relations with the court of Louis XIV, the real meat of the matter is Bulgakov’s own position as an artist under Stalin. He may have survived to die naturally (like Molière), but that does not mean that he was feted or even much tolerated by the Soviet regime. In Molière’s history, one of royal patronage first granted then later withdrawn after the anticlericalism of Tartuffe and the atheism of the protagonist of Don Juan, Bulgakov found an analogy with his sense of his own status, and further distorted the historical realities in order to increase it in his tragic drama. Thus, Molière’s downfall is here brought about by a Church cabal operating with the implicit permission of government, whose name is rendered in the late Michael Glenny’s translation as the League of Holy Writ and then twisted to provide the title of this version.
Director Blanche McIntyre has past form as regards staging Bulgakov in intimate spaces: her version of The Master And Margarita in a pub theatre in Greenwich was in many ways the most exciting, although the smallest, of the three productions of that play that piled up within a few weeks in 2004. Nor is it any mean feat of designer Alex Marker to have fitted an entire proscenium arch into the upstairs room in Earl’s Court that houses the Finborough Theatre. And yet, despite some fine performances (Justin Avoth as an impassioned Molière, Gyuri Sarossy as an inscrutable Louis, Paul Brendan in the comic-manservant role), the staging feels pedestrian. In the absence of an immediate political dimension (and comparisons of Gordon Brown with Stalin are absurd, as Private Eye magazine’s fortnightly column to that effect acknowledges), the actual drama needs to become more electric. Bulgakov does not help matters, in that no character in the play engages significant audience sympathy: Molière crows too much when his star is in the ascendant to engage our pity when it falls, quite apart from the incestuous subplot. A collectors’ item, then, rather than a gem in its own right.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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