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A CurtainUp London London Review
The White Guard

A country? A country? What's that to fight over? — Lena
The White Guard
Conleth Hill as Leonid and Justine Mitchell as Lena (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
The White Guard represents the death throes of pro-Tsarist supporters in their war-torn Ukraine winter of 1918-1919. After centuries of rule by a Cossack elite, under the titular control of The Hetman (though actually subservient to Russian imperial control), Ukraine is now torn apart by conflict as their German allies, faced with an onslaught from Russia's post-revolutionary Bolshevik Red Army, retreat to face final defeat in their homeland. Bolstered by Russian proletariat success, Ukrainian peasants join the Red Army fight, hoping to forge an independent nation once their Russo-German overlords have fled. The White Guard explores this moment of political upheaval through the eyes of the residents of Kiev who still believe in the integrity of their puppet leaders.

The play opens in the vast apartment (brilliantly designed by Bunny Christie) of Colonel Vladimir Talberg (Kevin Doyle), a Deputy War Minister under the Hetman regime. In the centre of Kiev, Talberg's apartment is a bastion of White Guard conservatism. Talberg's wife, the beautiful Lena (Justine Mitchell), cares for her brood of brothers and cousins, young idealistic officers and secret admirers, offering food, warmth and refuge from the steady fall of snow which relentlessly brushes past the apartment's icebound windows. From here, The White Guard attempt to plan their defence of The Hetman and of Ukraine.

Based on an earlier novel, and eventually, after much redrafting to accommodate the state censors, produced as a play in 1926, although under a different, more anodyne title, The White Guard is an amazing evocation of Kiev's turbulent history by Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer who lived through these terrible events in Ukrainian history. In Andrew Upton's superbly-written adaptation, all the passion, all the anger and all the humour is gloriously presented and explored.

Directed by Howard Davies with a simplicity and integrity which belies the innovative theatrical technique at the production's core, The White Guard bristles with social and political relevance for a twenty-first-century audience. Young, idealistic men ready to die for their country become the pawns of politicos who are happy to escape, without their wives and families if necessary, to save their own skins. As the despicable Talberg advises the hapless Lena, "Deputy War Ministers do not run away, they are called away!" The semantics of Machiavellian misrule define the decline of a nation whose Russification has removed even the Ukrainian language from the mouths of its nation's elite.

A magnificent ensemble cast adds to the artistic splendour of the piece. Justine Mitchell is a wonderful Lena, who utterly rejects her fawning war-minister husband as he abandons Ukraine to its fate. Lena has already received the attentions of the lascivious Lieutenant Leonid Shervinsky, a wannabe opera star who struts his well-lined stomach about the Talberg household. Conleth Hill is a comic genius as the vodka-swilling lothario, resplendent in his White Guard uniform and spur-jangling officer's riding boots. As personal aide to The Hetman, Leonid knows when the game is up. Adopting the neutrality of a "prole", Leonid demonstrates he is a survivor; his lust for Lena boding well for her own future during the dangerous years of the 1920s.

Lena's brothers, Nikolai and Alexei (Richard Henders and Daniel Flynn), represent the hardened military pragmatist and his youthful follower. Their military machine is fast crumbling. Without the support of the industrialized Germans, this rural-dominated state cannot defend against an onslaught of Bolshevik fighters. Even within their ranks there is discord, some believing that the Tsar has been assassinated, others refusing to accept a truth too horrible to comprehend. The brothers are joined by Viktor Myshlaevsky (Paul Higgins) and Alexander Studzinsky (Nick Fletcher), two Captains in The White Guard whose propensity for vodka and song is as great as their desire to fight for their country. Higgins's Viktor bristles with anger and disillusion, his set-piece rants as impotent as they are impassioned.

Into this military mix is thrown a young student and poet, Larion Larionovich (Pip Carter). Larion is outrageously gauche, unused to the effects of vodka and easily drunk under the table. His poetic odes, laughable in their parochial simplicity, dedicated to whatever his eyes first rest on, be it cream-coloured blind or the cousin to whom his mother has sent him for refuge. Carter's performance is natural and believable; Larion personifies the cowardly intellectual whose only weapon is the word, even that weapon blunted by a brandished pistol.

One person does know the truth: The Hetman. Anthony Calf is despicably great as the German appointee, whose Cossack ancestry and pompous attitude cannot mask an unbelievable unsuitability for military office. Calf's Hetman is glorious in his mundanity, his eventual rescue by German officers and secret escort back to Berlin a farcical moment of panic and fear. Left alone to destroy the official documents, Leonid takes the opportunity to leave just enough proof of the inanity of the regime, and to pocket a golden cigarette box as personal security for the future. Only Fyodor the footman (Barry McCarthy) is left to swear bitterly about his masters and face the wrath of his fellow countrymen and women. 

The White Guard is a superb example of British adaptation of an international classic at its best. It is fascinating to read that this play was one of Stalin's favourites, guaranteeing Bulgakov's safety and relative security into old age. The reason? Certainly not that it shows the pro-Tsarists as foolish idiots. Quite the reverse. Bulgakov's treatment of these misguided, by their German overlords, heroes of Ukrainian nationalism is sympathetic, even glorifying. For Stalin, this play demonstrated not the depravity of a defeated regime, but the military integrity of a worthy foe. The victory of Soviet Russia appeared that much sweeter against an admirable opponent, hence the play's success under a Stalinist regime. Now revived for the London stage, The White Guard deserves equal success, not for the hopelessness of its political message of nationalistic fervour and failure, but for its artistry and brilliant theatricality.

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The White Guard
Written by Mikhail Bulgakov
Adapted by Andrew Upton
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Conleth Hill, Pip Carter, Anthony Calf, Kevin Doyle, Paul Higgins
With: Graham Butler, Peter Campion, Gunnar Cauthery, Hannah Croft, Marcus Cunningham, Paul Dodds, Nick Fletcher, Daniel Flynn, Keiran Flynn, Michael Grady-Hall, Mark Healy, Richard Henders, Nick Julian, Dermot Kerrigan, Stuart Martin, Barry McCarthy, Daniel Millar
Design: Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Music: Dominic Muldowney
Music Director: Dan Jackson
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 15th June 2010
Reviewed by Kevin Quarmby based on 25th March 2010 performance at the Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube:Waterloo)

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