Review: The White Guard, National Theatre

“Negativity be damned”

Maintaining a strong record of reviving Russian plays (Burnt By The Sun was a highlight of last year for me), Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard takes up residence in the Lyttleton in a version by Andrew Upton (I saw a preview, it opens officially on 23rd April). Stalin was famously a fan of this play but it should be noted that Bulgakov was no Stalinist and was pretty much a dissident, writing as anti-Soviet works as he dared whilst forbidden to leave the country and suffering much from censorship, a theme visited in another of his plays, Molière or the League of Hypocrites seen in London late last year at the Finborough.

The White Guard is a look at the price that is paid by people during wartime: both on the grand political scale, but also on the personal and family lives. Set in the Ukraine in 1918, we follow the Turbin family as they struggle to maintain their lives in a Kiev ravaged by the just-ended First World War, yet flung headlong into the Russian Civil War which ensued immediately after. The Turbin’s apartment is presided over by the luminous Lena, around whom a coterie of assorted characters gravitate, as the tumultuous sequence of events and invaders threaten to irrevocably change to everyone’s way of life.

Events are indeed somewhat confusing, but by viewing them through the prism of the Turbin household, there’s a real sense of the disorientation that must have been felt at such a time. Without the modern 24 hour stream of news, every piece of information that comes through the door is so much more valuable in trying to work through the uncertainty and confusion. Yet through this time of turmoil, the camaraderie between this group of people is as strong as ever, as they laugh, sing, eat and drink much vodka, seeking solace in their love for each other and for their country.

Between Bulgakov’s writing and Upton’s translation, a great success has been achieved in creating a raft of rounded characters with real warmth and to whom we grow quite attached. Incontrovertibly Russian and genuinely funny, I could happily have joined their dinner table and necked a few shots of vodka with them. As the lone female (of note) Justine Mitchell’s Lena is the beating heart of this play, but there are delicious performances to be found throughout, ranging from Conleth Hill’s comic and strangely alluring Leonid, Pip Carter’s nerdish but beautifully affecting Larion, and my sneaking favourite Paul Higgins(the wonderful sweary Jamie from The Thick of It). There’s actually a surprisingly large cast, which results an additional series of cameos, the best of which is Anthony Calf’s The Hetman, a puppet leader much more concerned with saving his own skin than his country.

Funny, moving, wistful and engaging throughout, I really enjoyed this play and highly recommend it: it’s also visually stunning, if sets and scene changes took curtain calls, I’d’ve given a standing ovation! After the high standard set by London Assurance, The White Guard maintains the absolutely cracking start to this new season at the National Theatre, and I’m now looking forward even more to the rest of the plays set to open shortly.

The sets are quite frankly amazing. The opening drawing room alone is worth the ticket price, well dressed and effectively enhanced with beautifully observed little details like snow falling, visible through a back window and a great depth looking through the doors into a stairwell. Later on comes others, the best of which is a starkly empty huge palace room, but the joy is in the transitions: inventive and so much fun!

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Note: the opening scene of the second half contains an awful lot of loud noises and flying bits of stuff, beware if you’re in the front few rows!

3 thoughts on “Review: The White Guard, National Theatre

  1. Another accurate and considered review Ian, great stuff.

    You also nailed The Gods Weep for the utter crap it is; keep it up.

  2. Did you have a good seat? I'm trying to figure out why this show is so divisive – some are enthralled, some bored. Very strange. Current theory: closeness lends enchantment.

  3. Dan: I like you.
    Roo: Yup, second row centre. Maybe the attention to detail is lost the further away one is, but I still would have thought the acting was good enough to travel back.
    My theory: these people be fools!

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