The White Guard (Mikhail Bulgakov) National Theatre 18 March


Picture from NT Facebook page

This was–I understood it–the last preview night before the Press Night.  And rather than being Bulgakov’s own play (The Days of the Turbins) it was a new adaptation by Andrew Upton of his novel (The White Guard).  In search of ultimate cheapness, we were sitting in the second row from the front, and it was certainly a bit loud on occasions!  And the performances were clearly aimed at somewhere a bit further back, as well.

The play began in the Turbins’ apartment, which looked rather like the set for the National’s Philistines a couple of years ago, but painted in lighter colours (my companion felt she had also seen it in Three Sisters).  At the start I wasn’t really sure that I believed in the characters–I thought that Kevin Doyle as Count Talberg should at least have suggested someone who might be Deputy Minister of War at the beginning and then crumbled away, rather than being Basil Fawlty from the start.  There were many occasions where the director had half-understood Russian customs, which was more distracting than if he had ignored them entirely.  And if the actors find they can’t pronounce for instance Lyena as in Russian, then it’s better to go for Leyna (as in English) rather than Liyena, which sounds stupid in any language.

There followed a (tragi-)comic interlude in the Hetman’s headquarters when everyone ran away, having seized what valuables they could find.  And the interval.  I told my companion about the production I had once seen in St Petersburg, where the actor playing Nikolka Turbin (18 years old, according to Bulgakov’s dramatis personae) produced an uncannily accurate impersonation of the late Sid James, and she thought that was very funny.

After the interval we had some very loud external scenes of Aleksei Turbin perishing stupidly and the Petlyura band being bandits, after which it was back to the apartment.  I can’t help thinking that it might be better to stay in the Turbin’s apartment and have what happens elsewhere related in messenger speeches (or telephone calls, whatever).  After all, it is the contrast between the apartment and the world outside that is one of the main axes of the play, and the main character is Elena, who turns away from Talberg and the White Guard view of things to accept the new dispensation inthe form of Shervinsky.

So, we got back to the apartment and by this stage the play was working well, with the actors getting near to evincing Russian-style lightning and unprovoked changes of mood and a luminous performance from Justine Mitchell as Elena.

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