The British theatre has done well by the brilliant plays of Mikhail Bulgakov, but it is thirty years since the RSC staged The White Guard; Howard Davies’ superb National Theatre revival, in a fleet, funny and idiomatic new version by Andrew Upton (from a literal translation by Charlotte Pyke) is a major event.
The play, also known as The Day of the Turbins, is set in the aftermath of the October Revolution in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where a puppet German government, led by the Hetman (Anthony Calf) is poised between the resistance of the crushed intelligentsia, the White Guard, and the in-coming might of the Bolshevik Red Army.
The apartment of Turbin siblings – two brothers, Nikolai (Richard Henders) and Alexei (Daniel Flynn), and their sister Elena (Justine Mitchell) – is the rallying point and social focus for the local war effort, though Elena’s husband, Talberg (Kevin Doyle) has been appointed deputy war minister to the Hetman and Lieutenant Shervinsky (Conleth Hill) his aide-de-camp.
As the screws tighten, Talberg high-tails it to Berlin and, 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. Hetman then swaps clothes with a general and slips away to oblivion and safety on a stretcher.
The Ukrainian Nationalists take over the city, and the warfare gets uncomfortably real, with explosions and gunfire all over Bunny Christie’s set, chaos and despair in a makeshift operations centre in the school hall before the final reckoning back in the haven of the Turbins’ apartment.
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, with Elena trying desperately to hold the family together while Paul Higgins as a volatile captain and Pip Carter as her shattered cousin represent the brave and the foolish in the crisis.
I recall a radiant Juliet Stevenson as Elena in the RSC version which used Michael Glenny’s translation. But this performance is fuller and funnier and, although there’s not a single weak link in the cast, it’s 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.