Mikhail Bulgakov’s Morphine at The Cockpit theatre – in Russian with English subtitles

I was introduced to the oeuvre of Mikhail Bulgakov a year ago when I spontaneously decided in Zurich to go to the theatre and this blog found its direction. Since then I have checked for Bulgakov plays wherever I travelled, listened to audio plays and listened to Franz Ferdinand B-sides in a completely new context. Back here in London I found a niche theatre scene, playing Russian dramas with English subtitles and now I finally experience it for the first time. For someone with literature FOMO (always suspecting directors to cut out certain parts and translators taking too many liberties) it is a personal challenge: In advance I hear fellow audience members laughing when I cannot join in as a certain pun just doesn’t translate. Curiosity wins along with the fact that there is no denying that I do not speak a word of Russian. Not having read Bulgakov’s book Morphine should make me concentrate more on the story.

No denial: I cannot even read Russian

The Cockpit theatre is in a less well-known part of Marylbone around the Church Street Market area and when Google Maps sends us on magical mystery tour for far too long, we decide to hail a cab. The venue does not have a dedicated seating plan, meaning you can sit anywhere you like, surrounding the stage from three angles and with full trust in the website’s statement “great wherever you sit” we are picking our seats on the sidelines. Annoyingly this choice does not go well with the translations we rely on tonight – these are projected on the black drawn curtain which is at the same time the background setting. As a rich curtain is not a straight canvas its waves swallow letters, words and punctuation, especially from our side seats.

Morphine was released in 1926 and is based on Bulgakov’s very own experience, long term effects and addiction with morphine after volunteering in the First World War for the Red Cross as a medical doctor. On stage we meet a young doctor as well: Recently left for another man by his girlfriend, an opera singer in Moscow, he accepts a position in a remote village. But the admiration of his patients is not enough to get him over his broken heart and his pain is haunting him through the boredom of village life. Morphine embraces him, irresistible and fatally – a demon with the perfect legs of his ex-girlfriend and the power to let him live his fantasies. While his patients resemble more and more parodies of Russian folklore, he forgets his training and saves lives by crossing medical guidelines. Who would dare to criticise him?

But we do not get much of the dialogue here – the subtitles do not keep up. Slides shown are overloaded (I have no medical training and rely on these even more) and then again don’t move fast enough. While the characters continue their exchange of words, more than once we do get less than two seconds per translation slide because the prompter wants to keep up again. We definitely miss out on dialogue here and I wish the prompter a hefty caffeine fix.

However, the doctor’s staff become aware of his addiction and he agrees to get himself checked into a clinic, only to end up stealing morphine and injecting it in a Muscovite train station toilet. By now Morphine, the demon, is no sexy devil anymore but an old crone, riding on a pitchfork and finally losing all human resemblance.

There is no happy ending but distorted classical singing played, followed by a somehow delayed gunshot and I only hope that these effects were purposefully arranged. The actors receive flowers from their friends in the audience, something I haven’t seen since college theatre. Then, tickets were 2,50 Euro. Students proved their technical ambitions with sounds and light running smoothly. Anyone else playing Bulgakov this year?

Flowers for the ensemble

Morphine by Mikhail Bulgakov

** out of 5 stars

Directed and adapted by Victor Sobchak

We paid £25 for each seat .

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