Returning to its original title, ‘The White Guard’, Howard Davies directs the National Theatre’s revival of Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘A day at the Turbins’ combining beautifully, comedy and the tragedy of war.
Andrew Upton translates and adapts this play that peers in on the world of the Turbin family, headed by Elena and her brothers Nikolai and Alexei in 1918 Kiev when the Germans have control of the country and are awaiting the arrival of the Ukranian Nationalists. Bulgakov’s play is based on his personal experiences, having himself lived through no less than ten changes of power, and even naming Elena and Nikolai after his own siblings. He makes us aware of the difficulties soldiers faced when the country was in a state of upheaval and uncertainty, particularly the struggle many loyal White Guard members went through whilst leaders abandoned, fled and surrendered, leaving them fighting a somewhat lost cause. Their determination to remain optimistic through these hard times is admirable but they are forced to start to question their future and the future of their country.
The Turbin family are held together by their strength, their loyalty to the White Guard and their shared love of Elena, charmingly played by Justine Mitchell. Memorable performances too from Paul Higgins, the vodka swigging, Scottish friend of the family, Viktor, and Pip Carter as the Turbin’s cousin, Larion, who both gave sympathetic performances blended superbly with light comic relief. But the set offered by Bunny Christie is what really makes this play the success that it is. She has captured a cinematic style on the stage, every inch, every detail plays its part in the story, in their lives, in the war. Beautifully crafted, her low ceilinged underground army hideout, and her abandoned school are intricately designed, and the scenes are literally flown in and out, up and down, back and forth. Sound and lighting too (Christoper Shutt and Neil Austin) help inexplicably in the ambience of the piece, the light shining in and the snow outside the window is a constant reminder of the violence and world outside that they are trying to ignore when inside their warm and welcoming, vodka consuming, musical household where we see relationships built and destroyed. From inside the comfort of the Turbin’s living room, we hear bombs, the approach of the Ukranian Nationalists and the threat of the Bolsheviks.
Political satire and the autrocities of the Civil War somehow manage to complement each other in this twentieth century masterpiece. The acting and direction is sensitive and hard hitting in this tragic tale of life, love, war, death, drink and honour. Another success from the National Theatre.
The White Guard is running at the National Theatre until 7th July 2010, booking via their website. This review was written by Corinne Meredith, one of our young regular reviewers for A Younger Theatre.