at the Lyttelton Theatre, Sunday 11th April 2010
Although “a prelude to another great historical story”, Andrew Upton’s new version of Bulgakov’s “The White Guard” stands completely in its own right as a tale worth telling. Set in pre-Soviet Russia, the play shows the struggles of a family group fighting under the White Guard against nationalists and communists in the Ukraine, the inhabitants of which seem to be overwhelmingly in favour of a new beginning under Bolshevism. Oddly enough, it holds particular resonance being performed in the weeks leading up to a general election, for the apathetic public sentiment expressed in Britain 2010 could not be further from the full-scale revolution occurring in Russia in 1918.
The Turbins are clearly fighting a lost cause against the Reds, but do so in the name of honour. Bulgakov does not disclose who he believes to be right or wrong, but does commend those who stand to defend their name and what they believe to be right. Even though the author was forced by Stalin’s censors to make his characters to change allegiance to the Bolsheviks at the end of the play, it seems that those who stop fighting are praised, for it means that the list of dead does not need to grow. At a pivotal moment in the play, when Daniel Flynn’s Alexei looses his life after demanding the White Guard be disbanded, it is made clear that this is one too many dead and that it is not worth fighting further if a cause is lost.
Howard Davies’ superb direction, whilst exposing the horrors of war, does at the same time show the farce of any such conflict. Much of the play is darkly comic and shows those fighting to be incompetent. Captain Viktor Myshlaevsky and Lieutenant Leonid Shervinsky, played expertly by Paul Higgins and Conleth Hill respectively, are shown to be suitably barbaric in times of trouble, but at the same time can be compassionate. The only redeemable male character in the narrative is Larion Larionovich Surzhansky, played by Pip Carter, who although cowardly, does not wish to fight, and instead uses words as his weapon.
Justine Mitchell as Elena Turbin, the only woman in the play, delivers the stand out performance of the evening. Elena is a woman living in a man’s world, but it is she who is forced to make the toughest decisions and face the most difficult hardships. It is her journey that we care most about and the human aspect of this narrative which most engages the audience.
The design of the production, however, is the most cause for celebration. Bunny Christie’s set, Neil Austen’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound design transport us from the Turbin’s apartment to the vast, imposing palaces at Kiev and the cramped quarters of the frontline effortlessly. The comfortable spaciousness of the flat contrasts greatly with the brutality of using a school gymnasium as army offices.
Throughout the play we are reminded that there is no telling what may lie ahead. It is out duty, however to look to the past. In what we are constantly told by the media are ‘tough times’, we need to look back in order to put our current situation into perspective and make a reasoned choice as to how to act in the future. As Leonid observes, “people are so busy fussing about tomorrow that they forget about yesterday”. And yes, Cameron, I’m looking at you.