The second trip to the theatre last week was to see Howard Davies' National Theatre production of Bulgakov's THE WHITE GUARD at the Lyttleton which was a healthy antidote to the tortured dramaturgy at the Donmar.
Andrew Upton has adapted the 1926 Russian play with a muscular and rangy twang and although I was daunted by the 2 hour 40 minute running time - and there are some longueurs in the first act - I found myself hooked in the argument and sweep of the action.
Bulgakov's play is part satire, part-family drama, part tragedy and I was struck how no one has ever felt it warranted a film version as the action constantly moves from the intimate to the epic. Oddly enough it has previously been televised for the BBC as stand-alone plays in the 1960s and 1980s.
The play focuses on the constantly changing goalposts in the lives of people caught on the losing side in a war. We follow the fortunes of the Turbins, two brothers and a sister, who live together in a large Kiev flat - which is lucky for their friends and relatives as the Turbin's is an open house to them.
A major draw-back for the uninitiated is that Bulgakov was writing to an audience who knew exactly what their immediate history was so it was necessary in the interval to have a quick speed-read of the programme to find out what exactly the background was.
The Turbins find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time - namely the Ukraine in 1918. The Bolsheviks are in control of Russia and their Red Army is besting the White Army of Tsarist sympathisers whom the Turbin brothers fight for. When Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany to get out of the war they handed the Ukraine over to Germany who installed a puppet leader, the Hetman.However 8 months later WWI was over - Germany fled the Ukraine, taking their Hetman with them, chased out by a vengeful Ukranian people's army. Now the beleaguered White Army were fighting the militia who hated them for supporting the Hetman - and the Red Army was rolling ever closer, ready to crush them all.
Through these events, the Turbin siblings cling together, occasionally finding a moment to rest before a new enemy is firing rifles in the street outside. Their flat is the base for the Turbin's White Guard friends as well as a student cousin who has landed on their doorstep from nowhere. Among them is the dilettantish Shervinsky, a Lieutenant with artistic leanings who always checks the ground around him to know where to land on his feet when it kicks off.
In true Chekhovian fashion every man who walks over the Turbin doorstep falls in love with the cool and ever-practical Elena - no doubt because she appears to be the only woman in Kiev. However with the flight of the Hetman and German occupiers, the Turbin brothers are forced out into the streets and here Howard Davies steps up the action to take us from the relative safety of the flat to the violent and explosive outside world.
Howard Davies has always shown a remarkable clear-eyed and straightforward directing style but unlike Jamie Lloyd's efforts as mentioned at the Donmar, he never loses his grasp of the actual text and you trust him when he lets the play seemingly coast so you get to know the characters then to subtly change the tempo to give you and them a feeling of impending danger.
In this he is helped immensely by the set design of Bunny Christie who seamlessly moves the action from the apartment to the outside world, indeed the first transition is the sort that usually garners a round from the audience - the whole fussy and cluttered set for the Turbin's flat slides away from the audience for what seems like miles until the stage is left bare for the next scene in the empty Royal Palace.
Christie also takes us into the cramped basement headquarters of the militia where there is hardly room to swing a corpse and into the soulless gym of a deserted school which is under shellfire. Her effortless stagecraft is combined with the usual excellent lighting by Neil Austin to give us a real world in crisis.Davies also elicits fine performances from all his ensemble, he has the unerring gift of being a great director of a large NT company as was seen in his productions of BURNT BY THE SUN. THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA, THE SHAUGHRAUN and FLIGHT (also by Bulgakov).
Conleth Hill makes the potentially unlikeable Shervinsky into a genuinely intriguing character, one whose pragmatism will always keep him one step ahead of his enemies while Justine Mitchell plays the idealised heroine Elena with a real humanity which overrides any irritation that may come with her character's all-round saintliness.
There are notable supporting performances from Pip Carter as the gentle cousin who arrives unexpectedly to stay, Anthony Calf as the ludicrous Hetman who swears undying devotion to the country while doing all he can to escape, Kevin Doyle as Elena's cowardly politician husband and Barry McCarthy playing two examples of Ukrainian worker stoicism.
Although it is not a forgotten masterpiece, the play still touches on the unrelenting turmoil caused by war.
The real irony, which Bulgakov must have appreciated, happened when the serialised version of his initial novel was banned by the Bolsheviks. The Moscow Arts Theatre had liked what they had read and commissioned him to write it as a play which finally saw it's debut in 1926 after several rewrites forced on Bulgakov by the censors. Despite getting bad reviews by the Party critics. the play had a sold-out run - and one of it's biggest fans was one Joseph Stalin!
Amazingly Stalin saw the play shining reflected glory on the Bolsheviks - if they could defeat such worthy opponents then they must be themselves worthy winners. He saw the play 15 times so the play was kept in the repertoire.
However having Stalin as a front-row regular had it's cost. When the dictator criticised him in 1929 all his plays were quickly withdrawn from theatres and nothing he wrote was ever staged again - apart from THE WHITE GUARD which quickly appeared again in 1932 when Stalin happened to wonder aloud why it didn't seem to be on anymore! It ran for another 7 years providing Bulgakov with a steady income but no other outlet for his work.
Bulgakov, unlike a good number of his contemporaries, survived the show trials and executions only to die aged 48 from a kidney disorder in 1940.