BWW Reviews: THE WHITE GUARD, National Theatre, May 10 2010
Like many of the National Theatre's audience on May 10 2010, your reviewer was taking a keen interest in events playing out just across the Thames, as a messy political impasse was being broken by some rather sordid deal-making between erstwhile political enemies, principle sacrificed to the twin gods of expediency and power. Come 7.30pm, all that was left behind, as we were transported to Kiev in 1918 where a messy political impasse was being broken by some rather sordid... well, you get the point.
Andrew Upton's new version of Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard, directed at lightening pace by Howard Davies using sets as convincing as the National Theatre must ever have seen, follows the Turbin family as their lives are smashed by the civil war raging, literally, on their doorstep. The Turbins remain "White" - loyal to the Tsar - whilst other characters switch between factions, including one led by the Germans' placeman, Ukrainian nationalists and, eventually, riding an irresistible tide of history, the Bolshevik revolutionaries, offstage and, hence, out of sight of Stalin's censors. In one short but terrifying scene, a cobbler has been seized by wild-eyed soldiers and hails the wrong man - informed of the proud name of the soldiers' army, he responds, "Are you new?", capturing the bewilderment of the civilian caught in barbaric civil war in just three words.
Though the setting is grim and ultimately tragic, Bulgakov finds plenty of laughter in the dark. There's an splendidly lecherous turn from Conleth Hill, getting his reward for persistence with the much sought after affections of Justine Mitchell's elegant Elena Turbin; Anthony Calf and Kevin Doyle are sickeningly pompous, hypocritical allies to the Germans; and Pip Carter winningly hilarious with the old "first time drunk" shtick, which would have gone down very well with Stalin, fifteen times in the audience at the Moscow Art Theatre.
As bravos rang out at curtain call, it was easy to reflect on a play full of one-dimensional characters (and caricatures), all just a little too obvious, but soon the iPhones and BlackBerries were shining out with the latest news of the UK's political intriguing. And, wouldn't you know it, those characters look every bit as one-dimensional as Bulgakov's. Whether their story will be as tragic remains to be seen, but at least our "civil war" is fought with words and money, not guns and bombs.