The Theatreguide.London Review
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.
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
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
human story. If we have to begin every scene by readjusting our
expectations and attitude, we may never get fully engaged with it.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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Review - The White Guard - National 2010