Review – The White Guard, National Theatre

Wednesday 17 March 2010

To be perfectly honest the Whingers really weren’t looking forward to Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The White Guard which doesn’t really support our claim to approach every theatrical sortie with an open mind. Actually, “blank” mind is probably closer to the truth.

So why did we book tickets for it then, you might ask? To which our response would be: “mind your beeswax” or, if  we were in a better mood, “because if we only went to see things we knew we’d like we’d hardly go at all”.

We go to the theatre because we want to be surprised and the bigger the surprise the better. We want to enter a 3 hours plus (with two intervals) play with heavy hearts and come out raving about Jerusalem. And we want to drag our feet into the Lyttelton for yet another adaptation of an old Russian play and come out saying, “The National Theatre has come up trumps again! Hoorah for the National Theatre!”

Of course, these things don’t usually happen. Such occasions are rarer than hen’s teeth. But sometimes…

Phil arrived quite breathless (even for him) at the National Theatre having cut short a reception across the river where he had been eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine with minor European royalty. “I didn’t want to leave. I’ve had a couple of glasses of champagne,” he drunk-whispered to Andrew just before curtain rose.

“I can tell,” Andrew responded with the eager tartness of one whose opportunities to take the moral high ground where sobriety is concerned are few and far between.

Could this possibly be the same Phil who responded to the first end-of-interval warning bell in an uncharacteristically Pavlovian manner, jumping up and worrying that he might not get back to his seat in time? Extraordinary.

Cate Blanchett’s husband Andrew Upton‘s version is based on Bulgakov’s 1926 play The Days of the Turbins which in turn was based his 1923 book  The White Guard.

The Turbins are a Kiev family trying to survive the Russian revolution happening around them. They’re all sympathetic to, or members of, the titular Tsarist army but it’s a complicated war – or, more accurately, these are complicated wars as the factions involved in the Russian civil war and the Great War result in shifting alliances and conflicts which often make it unclear – to the participants, never mind the audience – who is on which side and why. The result, as The White Guard presents it, is a Molotov Cocktail of farce, tragedy and wasted lives.

Curiously Stalin loved the play* and saw it (albeit a heavily censored version) some 20 times. The Whingers are unlikely to see it that many times and yet we have to report the gratifying news that something very odd is happening at the National Theatre. For this on the heels of London Assurance suggests that the theatre is using its copious subsidies to put on big productions of entertaining plays peopled by top notch actors and pushing all the buttons on the National’s stage technology machines. Just like the good old days. The White Guard is a spectacular success.

Justine Mitchell, Conleth Hill and Pip Carter in The White Guard

There is such superb ensemble playing that is almost unfair to single out individual performances. But we will. The Whingers were especially taken with Justine Mitchell‘s Elena who is so popular with the men she could probably give Hedda Gabler a run for her money. But as she seems to be the only woman in Kiev (apart from an unconvincing female soldier who is presumably Miss Mitchell’s understudy) it’s hardly surprising.

Then there is Pip Carter‘s hilarious student Larion who turns up in Kiev after 11 days on a train wearing the same suit which barely seems to have a crease in it (whereas Andrew can wear a suit for 11 minutes and look like he’s spent 11 nights on a train). Anthony Calf‘s Ukranian leader (the Hetman) whose one scene teeters enjoyably between ‘Allo ‘Allo and Blackadder and Conleth Hill‘s brilliantly entertaining Shervinsky delight with every expression. And could Hill be the new Simon Russell Beale? We could do with two.

Anthony Calf's Hetman effects an escape

There was much to keep the Whingers on the edges of their seats including eyebrow-singeing explosions in Scene 5 which would probably finish off a Richmond audience and a wonderfully staged dinner party in the Turbin household: huge amounts of vodka are consumed and their reaction to water being served brought out the Whingers’ own Tsarist tendencies, “Water? Water? The drink of the Bolsheviks!” and even some heard-but-not-seen off-stage vomiting. Carter’s drunkenness (“I love it here! All the lights are spinning! How do you do that?”) is a delight. Sadly the Whingers were sitting too close to see what food was being consumed but Phil hoped, since we are in Kiev, that it might be chicken.

Bunny Christie‘s sets are quite astonishing (and numerous – a house, a palace, a gymnasium and a bunker). Snow falls outside! But the most amazing thing of all is the transition between scenes 2 and 3. We shall say no more but simply entreat you to fight for tickets in the centre of the front stalls and then forget we said anything. Amazing.

There are of course some rough edges, this being a preview: Andrew sneered a bit at some rather perfunctory flower arranging and was rather appalled by all the number of rotting naked feet on display (although to be fair these are mentioned in the text).

Ah yes, the text. We just hadn’t expected this to be so damned funny from the rather puerile treading of dog poo into carpet to delightful aphorisms (“I’m not running away, I’m escaping… Deputy War Ministers do not run away. They are called away.”) Andrew Upton injects a charm into the characters which makes their stories irresistibly engaging as the humour falls away and violence takes its place. Big credit to director Howard Davies for making a whole out of this disparate play and even if the final act feels a little too exhausted after all that has gone before, the Whingers were nevertheless moist behind the eyes for the final heart-breaking moment.


* The Whingers are with Stalin on this one and now can’t wait for Hitler’s favourite play The Prince of Homburg which is coming up at the Donmar. They’ll be trawling the internet over the next few days to find out which theatrical gems Robert Mugabe, Pol Pot and the Ceauşescus were partial to and will be forwarding the list to Sir Nicholas Hytner in due course.


Rating score 4-5 full-bodied

18 Responses to “Review – The White Guard, National Theatre”

  1. betsy Says:

    Why are you assuming that it’s Andrew Upton not Mikhal Bulgakov who injects the charm into the characters? Having seen Riflemind, I’d probably assume it’s Bulgakov…

    (‘Version of’ is just a fancy way of saying ‘translation and a couple of cuts’, I believe. And a way of papering over the National Theatre’s abject failure to produce any good new plays on this scale at all. )

  2. Chris Says:

    Was going to give this one a miss – thinking one can become weary of Russian classics – but with such a glowing review, have just booked tickets!

  3. Brian Tyler Says:

    Just got back from this. Left at the interval it was so dull. Felt much better for doing so.

    It wasn’t funny in the slightest. Just dull banal pap. I should have bought the book instead.

  4. Andrew Upton still owes me money after that monstruosity of Riflemind but I love Bulgakov and I love Pip Carter, so there’s no escaping this one. The good reviews are cheering me up.

  5. paul mac Says:

    I’m with Brian Tyler-the text is far superior. wish i had joined him in leaving at the interval. the humour was very weak indeed, and involved much forced laughter from an audience frighteningly determined to enjoy themselves. england is a funny place.

  6. Vladimir Says:

    It is always laughable to see russian actors trying to portraite british aristocracy, but attempts to pass british binge drinking on top of traditionally hysterical monologues for russian characters is by far more hilarious. Russians do not take shots with wide eyed expression of a person who is about to jump from a cliff, but drink it slowly, enjoying every single drop of it for a start. The adaptation is actually quite clever presenting Elena as modern Ukraine. The strong sensible older brother Alexey (Russian Empire) is dead. She has to choose between ever elusive Europe (German husband), Belorussia (disabled handicapped younger brother Nikolay) and the rest apparently all sort of modern russian honest drunkards or less honest chameleons (apparently new ukranian president). I just have one question. Why do people like adapting classic works of great creators? If the Cate Blanchett’s husband has something to say why would not he write his own play? “Days of the Turbins” is not a political satire!! It is a Requiem to those russians who died in Civil War and were discarded by bolshevics from nation’s memory. It is our tragedy, heartache, sorrow, tears and anguish. I would suggest british theatre to stick to Shakespeare and put him in love or wherever else. Leave russian classics to russians.

  7. Ian Foster Says:

    Frightening determined to enjoy ourselves? Whatever next!
    If one could give standing ovations for sets and scene changes, I’d’ve been the first one my feet, it really does look amazing.
    And I have to say I loved the play too, I found it funny, moving, wistful and engaging: highly enjoyable. It is interesting to read the blog about how it differs from the source material, but having no previous with it, it didn’t affect my enjoyment.

  8. Baldassaro Says:

    I enjoyed it, although not quite as much as the Whingers did. I certainly wasn’t tempted to leave at the interval, and enjoyed the sets and the acting (especially Conleth Hill and Pip Carter). But the closing scene dragged a bit – I kept thinking it was going to end, then it found an extra bit of puff and went on for another ten minutes, after which the process was repeated.

    A solid three wineglass affair, rather than four, I think – perhaps Phil’s reception over the river had gone to the Whingers’ collective heads…

  9. […] on stage? I should have gone to see 4.48 Psychosis at the Barbican instead. I have no idea what the West End Whingers really saw in this show, but, for God’s sake, if you’re not a fan of Russian drama or a […]

  10. webcowgirl Says:

    WOW. I just thought this was so dull. I wonder if it’s an English thing? I just have no appetite for Russian plays at all and I think I will have to swear on my mother’s grave to not go to any more of them.

  11. jason Says:

    a) All well acted and pretty and ooh, look, real fire! but really, why? I found myself mentally twittering on a couple occasions things like “@nationaltheatre tells stories because they can, not because they’re worth telling.”

    b) also not sure why it was so comic. What was funny, really? Felt like it just very desperately wanted to be Shaw.

    c) I know I’ve commented on this before, but I’ve got a bit of a bug about letting actors’ natural accents into their characters. Mind you, I’m not convinced that I’d rather hear a bunch of RP butchering a Russian accent, but really, you wouldn’t do Blanche DuBois without even *attempting* southern, would you?

  12. Simon Says:

    @paul mac

    “much forced laughter from an audience frighteningly determined to enjoy themselves. england is a funny place.”

    The sort of people who go to the NT go to John Lewis if they *really* want to enjoy themselves. They go to the theatre because it makes them feel intelligent (which is why they love Tom Stoppard) and erudite (which is why they like writers with foreign names) and they laugh to show their friends and neighbours that they understand the jokes. The director’s brief was obviously to turn the black humour of a play about the destructive horrors of civil war into a comfortable domestic comedy which would appeal to these blinkered dimwits up from Guildford for the evening – and he did an admirable job. Bravo!

  13. Simon Says:

    At least the FT provides some sort of antidote to the wretched sycophants at the Guardian, Telegraph, Times and Independent. The final line of his review for “The White Guard” could apply to many NT productions. “A lot of scenery and a lot of fine acting, though, have left little room for a discernible point.”

  14. Simon Says:

    Actually, Andrew, I was trying to be generous and thought that a satirical tone was not inappropriate given that this is Bulgakov. I thought that the author – one of my favourite – was very poorly served by this production but I recognise that the NT does know its audience and is obviously very good at giving them what they want.

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