This review was originally written for the Londonist
Personal and political, intimate as well as grand, drunken and silly but also terribly serious, The White Guard is great. Bulgakov’s rarely staged play has been updated for the National Theatre by Andrew Upton and the results are excellent. The audience roared with laughter, cowered with fear and we’re sure most must have shed a secret tear or two.
Set in the Ukraine during the Russian civil war of 1918-19, the play charts a short period in the lives of a family of friends, knitted together by the powerful charms of a lady called Lena. The war is a messy business, but the closeness of the people who hang out at the Turbin apartment remains constant as the horror and confusion outside its four walls increases.
The script is funny and tragic, the action gripping, the performances from the actors convincing and the set utterly magnificent. The interiors are vast and stunning, and also playful. At the end of a drunken evening the stage slowly moves making the watcher feel as woozy as the character who’s just downed rather a lot of vodka.
Justine Mitchell plays Lena Turbin, a lone female in a play about men’s wars. Everyone loves her absolutely, revering her calm and her beauty like she is some kind of angel, which has the potential to make her a little bit annoying but we think we were a little bit in love with her too by the end of the play. In a brutal world that’s icy cold and full of frost bitten armed men with shifting allegiances, her warmth is crucial to a man’s survival. The Turbin flat is a safe haven of her making and it is with relief that we return there after excursions out into Kiev.
The White Guard is definitely recommended viewing. It’s a long play but it’s gripping, not once did we fidget in our seats. We genuinely could have happily carried on watching for hours, having become fully entwined in the lives of the main protagonists. Saying that, the ending was strong, sad but laced with hope.
The White Guard plays at the National until the June 15 – find out more at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk