The National Theatre’s revival of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, in a new translation by Andrew Upton, completes a triumphant hat-trick of Russian plays (following Philistines and Burnt by the Sun) for director Howard Davies.
The play, which opened last night at the NT Lyttleton (previews from 10 March 2010) and continues in rep until the 15 June, follows pro-Tsarist family the Turbins, caught in the maelstrom of war in 1918 Ukraine, as the battle for the city of Kiev is waged between the Germans, the Bolsheviks and the Ukranian nationalists.
First night critics were generally enthusiastic, if somewhat divided regarding the dramatic edge of Davies’ direction. Whilst admirers raved that the revival “triumphantly combines the intimate and the epic, the comic and the profoundly affecting”, others expressed doubts over whether the revival “manages a sense of true theatrical anarchy to match the story” and found that “the shifts of tone are occasionally uncomfortable”. However, minor grumblings aside, most heralded “a remarkable production”, and the acting of the “superb ensemble", led by Conleth Hill's "glorious study in slimy good manners" as Leonid.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “The British theatre has done well by the brilliant plays of Mikhail Bulgakov … Howard Davies’ superb National Theatre revival, in a fleet, funny and idiomatic new version by Andrew Upton is a major event … in a scene of hilarious satirical savagery, Calf’s Hetman, consumed with timid inadequacy, and Hill’s deferential but quick-thinking Shervinsky blunder on about tactics and policy, trying to speak in Ukrainian … The rarity of the play lies not only in its black humour and vivid characterizations but in a sense of upheaval and political crisis being lived in the moment … there’s not a single weak link in the cast … Conleth Hill’s glorious study in slimy good manners and political opportunism that strikes to the heart of Bulgakov’s bitter eulogy for revolutionary change.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) - “With this thrilling, darkly comic and often deeply moving production … director Howard Davies has delivered the third in an outstanding series of productions at the NT set in Russia … proves as fine as its predecessors in Andrew Upton’s vivid new version … Davies directs with virtuosic assurance on splendidly atmospheric and ingenious sets by Bunny Christie … a superb ensemble in which even the smallest roles come alive … Justine Mitchell brings a lovely humanity and humour to Elena, with a vile weasel of a husband (excellent Kevin Doyle) … Richard Henders and Daniel Flynn give strong performances as her contrasting brothers, while Conleth Hill delivers a delicious performance of droll camper … I also loved Pip Carter, irresistibly funny and touching … This is theatre that triumphantly combines the intimate and the epic, the comic and the profoundly affecting … one of the greatest theatrical achievements of the past decade.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Andrew Upton’s punchy version … Howard Davies gives us the feel of civil war: the danger, the confusion, such ugly moments…and such farcical episodes as the abject exit of Anthony Calf’s blustering, posturing Hetman … The revival triumphs. Chekhov or Gorky would have admired the excitement, depression, quarrels, boozing and despair that variously flicker, dip, flare, die in the posh drawing room inhabited by three siblings — Daniel Flynn’s principled Alexei, Richard Henders’s goofy Nikolai, Justine Mitchell’s enchanting Elena — and visited by Paul Higgins’s bold, wild Viktor and Conleth Hill’s hilarious Leonid.”
Robert Gore Langton in the Daily Express (three stars) - “The lavish designs by Bunny Christie are a marvel of realism, and make you want to move in … Bulgakov's brilliance is that he is satirizing Ukrainian history almost as it is being made. It's Monty Python meets Blackadder with a dose of Chekhovian heartbreak thrown in … in presumably liked the play so much because he knew the final outcome for Russia - and himself … Hats off to the cast, who for the most part make us care … Justine Mitchell is rather gorgeous as the woman with whom everyone is in love … Anthony Calf is comic book plonker as the top Kraut … the spirit of the play seems to reside in the sleek, turncoat aide de camp Shervinsky, hilariously played by Conleth Hill … Pip Carter, magnificent as the diffident poet Larion … Howard Davies's efficient production tries to make sense of the sheer mass of incident but never quite manages a sense of true theatrical anarchy to match the story. It's the laughs and the sets that keep you going.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “In Howard Davies’s deftly directed production, eloquent details combine with large statements to evoke the confusion, energy, pain and charm of this world … Bunny Christie has created a succession of opulent sets and there’s particularly atmospheric sound by Christopher Shutt … The ensemble work is excellent … Justine Mitchell, radiant as Lena … Pip Carter, who brings a touching awkwardness to Larion … However, Upton’s reworking of Bulgakov misses some of the subtle gradations of post-Revolutionary society. While often sharp, the writing has longueurs, and the shifts of tone are occasionally uncomfortable. Some sequences could be out of Chekhov, while other humorous sections seem too broad ... Visually and technically this is a remarkable production. However, 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.”
- Jude Offord