Theatre review: White Guard

Posted on: 13 April 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews the rarely performed play The White Guard at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton auditorium.

A society on the verge of collapse but kept alive with music, friendship and amorous entanglements is vividly depicted by Mikhali Bulgakov in his rarely performed play The White Guard, staged in a new version by Andrew Upton at the NT’s Lyttleton auditorium.

The drama is set in Kiev around Christmas 1918, during the Russian Civil War. The Turbin household provides a sanctuary to a ragbag, close-knit crowd presided over by the beautiful Lena, who is married to the deputy prime minister of war. After her husband heads for Berlin and her brothers prepare to fight for the White Guard who support the deposed Tsar, friends charge in from riotous streets amidst an atmosphere of heady chaos, quaffing vodka, keeling over, declaiming, taking baths, playing guitar, and falling in love. But the new regime is poised and in its brutal triumph lies destruction for the Turbins and their world.

Upton’s vigorous new version of Bulgakov’s work which was much admired by Stalin succeeds in depicting the near-farcical mayhem of civil war across a vast and vivid canvas, moving swiftly from board comedy to pain and death, whilst at the same time evoking all the confusion, energy and charm of this now forgotten period. Yet although strikingly staged on a succession of opulent, atmospheric sets, the production, directed by Howard Davies, remains emotionally cold, and while the story moves at a brisk pace, there are nevertheless one of two longueurs.

Davies, however, draws commendable performances from his convincing NT ensemble, most notably Justine Mitchell, making a truly appealing Lena, Daniel Flynn and Richard Henders as her two brothers, Pip Carter as her poetic, student cousin, and Anthony Calf as the Hetman, the fast talking, severe puppet leader installed by the Germans.

Finally I would like to add that it is essential to buy a programme for this production as it contains a clear and detailed account of the background to this turbulent period in Russian history.

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre’s Lyttleton auditorium

When: plays in repertory until 15 June

Box Office: 020 7452 3333

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