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The Theatreguide.London Review


The White Guard
Lyttelton Theatre 2010

For all its virtues - and they are considerable - Andrew Upton's adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's stage adaptation of his own novel may have been just one adaptaion too far.

That Upton's modern vocabulary and Anglicisms occasionally clash with the 1918 Ukrainian setting is perhaps inevitable. More of a problem is that the play retains a novel's sprawling, meandering structure and shifts in tone and focus.

It is easy enough to follow, with the aid of a few programme notes, but the repeated tonal dislocations - from light comedy to political satire to moral drama and back -  risk disconnecting the audience from the central human story. If we have to begin every scene by readjusting our expectations and attitude, we may never get fully engaged with it.

In 1918 Kiev, the Germans support a puppet Ukrainian government as it fights both the Bolsheviks from Russia and a home-grown revolution, with a battalion of the Russian White Guard caught in the middle.

In the course of the play the Germans will withdraw, the puppet government will flee, and the Ukrainian rebels will take control, only to be defeated in turn by the Bolsheviks. And the White Guard, loyal to a Russia that no longer exists, will be caught in the middle.

The play centres on the family of the White Guard commander, who will eventually be forced to make unthinkable choices in the face of inevitable defeat. Meanwhile his sister’s Ukrainian husband is one of the first cowards to flee, leaving her to offer only token resistance to an amiable seducer, and the extended family around them will have to adjust to a radically changing world.

The play opens as warm comedy, embracing the Chekhovian family and finding the cowardly husband merely ludicrous. It shifts to more bitter political satire and farce as we watch the other rats abandoning the sinking political ship, then to moving personal drama as the White Guard face their untenable situation, and then back once more to a somewhat more sombre but still warm domesticity.

That could easily be accomplished in a novel, and even onstage each scene is effective once we adjust to its new style, but too much time may be lost in the adjustment, and too much emotional involvement lost in the periods of adjustment.

Neither the adaptor nor director Howard Davies has found a way to smooth over the shifts in tone or speed up the transitions, leaving it to the actors to create characters with enough reality and continuity to hold us through the journey.

Justine Mitchell as the sister/wife/lover/hostess is the most successful, establishing from the start the wise humour of a woman who recognises the inherent silliness of men, be they soldiers, cowards or lovers, and letting her grow into a Sean O’Casey woman who bears the full burden of war’s obscenity.

Richard Henders is stalwart as the commander, Conleth Hill amiable as the mildly ridiculous lover, and Pip Carter delightful as a country cousin finding it all a big adventure.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The White Guard - National 2010