Set in Kiev in the winter of 1918 to 1919, this is the story of a family caught-up in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Surprisingly, this play was one of Stalin's favourites – he apparently saw it more than a dozen times. Just what drew him to it is unclear, but it obviously enthralled him. In Stalin's day, the play was entitled 'The Days of the Turbins' and ran for years at the Moscow Arts Theatre. But it had taken on various forms – an unproduced play and a novel - before its author, Mikhail Bulgakov got it on stage. This new version or adaptation is by Andrew Upton.
The complexities of the political background will probably have you delving into the dim and distant reaches of your memory to recall history lessons and dredge up what happened at the time – if you ever knew it, that is. You may well find the extensive programme notes – always a first-rate feature of National Theatre productions - invaluable in filling in some of the gaps. Basically, the Germans have installed a puppet government in the Ukraine, but are being attacked by the Ukrainian Nationalist Army, closely followed by the Red Army. Kiev apparently changed hands several times during the conflict and one can only wonder what misery the inhabitants might have endured. Howard Davies's exceptional production gives us an uncompromising glimpse of the reality complete with ear-shattering explosions, and the grim conditions of life at the front line.
Alexei and Nikolai Turbin are members of the pro-Tsarist White Guard who are fighting both the Germans and the Ukrainian Nationalists. Their sister Elena (excellently played by Justine Mitchell) is married to Vladimir, the Deputy War Minister who is fleeing to safety in Berlin when we first encounter him. The Turbins in a sense belong to the old order. They are loyal to the Tsar and believe in honour and tradition. But all that is to be swept aside eroding all that they hold dear and believe in.
Bunny Christie's staggeringly fine design provides some monumental sets – fitting for a play about the world's largest country. The locations vary from a large family apartment in Kiev to the field headquarters of the Ukrainian Nationalist Army. There's also a huge, echoing palace where the puppet leader of the Ukraine has his headquarters, and there's a squalid field HQ accomplished with breathtaking realism. Ingeniously and in spite of the complexity of the enormous sets, the scene changes are elegantly smooth and fluid.
The fine ensemble cast of more than two dozen bring this play vividly to life. I particularly enjoyed Conleth Hill as the suavely camp Leonid who readily casts off his uniform to join the opera in Moscow. Pip Carter provides youthful intellectuality as cousin Larion, and Anthony Calf gave us a Hetman who one felt was only just this side of sanity.
At times, 'The White Guard' borders on farce. In the midst of a desperate situation, the Hetman instructs his aide to speak to him in Ukraine, even though the aide speaks little of the language and takes minutes to mouth even a short sentence. In the family apartment, there's riotous drinking the night before a campaign is due to kick in and the young cousin Larion – the intellectual among the group – recites poetry about the living room blinds. In effect, we have the horror of civil war juxtaposed with farce, and it works supremely well.
The National Theatre seems to stretch the bounds of possibilities with almost every production it attempts, and 'The White Guard' follows the party line perfectly. It's theatre on an imposing scale, brilliantly directed and realised, and, well, stunning.
"A breathtaking production."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Thrilling, darkly comic and often deeply moving production ."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"The revival triumphs."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"It’s rather confusing, and the storytelling fails to resonate. The play’s historical and political burden is substantial but it isn’t genuinely engaging."
Henry Hitchings's for The Evening Standard
"Whether I sought a human, intellectual or political perspective, The White Guard signally failed to give one up."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"Another resounding hit."
Mark Shenton for The Stage