On paper, The White Guard looks like a bit of a slog: a rarely performed 1926 Russian play about the chaotic post-revolutionary civil war in the Ukraine, with only one woman among its cast of twenty two, does not sound like the basis for a terrific night out. In practice, happily, it plays a little differently and provides an engrossing, moving and unexpectedly hilarious production.
The play is firmly in the realist manner and it’s a tribute to Mikhail Bulgakov’s technical skills as a playwright that despite having been written not long after the events it describes the play assumes almost nothing in the way of prior knowledge but articulates and clarifies a very complicated conflict without ever being tediously expository. It’s hard to say how much help Andrew Upton has invisibly provided in his new translation, but what’s certain is that the language and dramatic rhythms of the text feel utterly modern; it would be easy to believe this is a prestigious premiere rather than a revival.
The action begins in a large flat in Kiev in late 1918 and the thread of the story is woven around its inhabitants, the Turbins. Their position as slightly shabby Ukranian aristocracy ensures that the male members of the family are stalwarts of the White Guard, the rump of the Russian army upholding the Tsarist cause against the dual opposition forces of the Bolshevik revolutionaries and a rising Ukranian Nationalist Army. As the snow falls outside the windows (a charming piece of staging), rumours begin to spread of the withdrawal of the German support for the White Guard and the position begins to appear more and more hopeless.
With the play situated so precisely in a specific political and historical context, director Howard Davies has eschewed any temptation to try to universalise the production and has gone instead for an extraordinary verisimilitude, aided by a series of huge and beautifully detailed sets by Bunny Christie (which nonetheless pull some inventive surprises, with one particular scene transition which is as delightful as it is dramatically evocative). The firm grounding of the staging is matched by the acting, which is intimate and realistic to match the writing; the cast – led most memorably by Justine Mitchell, as the emotional heart of the Turbin family, and Conleth Hill as a wry, portly roué who can’t quite believe he’s become a soldier – create a series of beautifully human portraits. Pip Carter, who’s becoming almost as much of a Lyttleton regular as Adrian Scarborough or Oliver Ford Davies, is particularly effective as a student with little knack for timing. The family are strongly and warmly established in a long domestic opening sequence, and are then flung off into a world which becomes more absurd as it expands. The easy sitcom becomes broader and more savage as it’s stained with farce and tragedy.
The balancing of the political and the domestic, the vicious and the generous, increasingly asserts itself as the purpose of the play. We’re shown that even in as firmly real an environment as the apartments and palaces of Kiev, the structures of government and society are evanescent and cease to exist as soon as there’s no-one left who can be bothered to believe in them. The characters we’re invited to despise are those who continue to insist that history is theirs for the writing; the ones we celebrate are those who maintain their humanity in the face of a collapsed world.
It’s a wonderful production of a fascinating play; it’s more than enough to make one grateful once again for existence of the National Theatre, since it’s very difficult to think of anywhere else in the country which could mount such a lavish, thoughtful production of a play which doesn’t have obvious commercial appeal – but which nonetheless deserves to find an audience.