The White Guard, National Theatre, Lyttelton, May 2010

Stalin loved this play by Mikhail Bulgakov about the aftermath of the revolution in 1917. It’s set in Bulgakov’s home town of Kiev, capital of the Ukraine, which had achieved autonomy in 1917, before becoming a founder member of the Soviet Union in 1922. He’d served as a doctor during the second half of the First World War, and writing later about the years between 1917 and 1920 he said, “The inhabitants of Kiev reckon that there were eighteen changes of power. Some stay-at-home memoirists counted up to twelve of them. I can tell you that there were precisely fourteen, and what’s more I personally lived through ten of them”.

In 1920 he wrote a play about these confusing events, called The Turbin Brothers (the name Turbin came from his mother’s side of the family), but destroyed it, and during 1921–23 turned it into a novel, The White Guard. In 1925 he adapted the novel as a play for the Moscow Art Theatre, and after the censor passed it, with various cuts and additions, the premiere took place in 1926, under the title, The Days of the Turbins. This play, full of pathos and humour expressing the confusion and misplaced sense of honour surrounding the aftermath of the revolution, became a huge success, but the critics were almost entirely hostile, and in 1929, after Stalin made adverse comments about Bulgakov’s work, it was taken off. Then in 1932, Stalin, who had already seen the play numerous times, casually enquired why they were no longer performing it. The theatre immediately put it on again, and in 1934 at its five hundredth performance, wrote to Bulgakov that, “The Turbins has become another Seagull for the new generation . . .”. But it was not to last, and as Bulgakov’s wife Elena wrote in her diary in 1937 and 1938, “Today in Pravda there was an article . . . about the Moscow Art Theatre. There was not a single word in it about The Turbins, and when they listed the Soviet-era dramatists who have been performed in the Art Theatre, Bulgakov’s name wasn’t even there!”

This new production of The Turbins, now called The White Guard, has been adapted by Andrew Upton.  Its large cast of over twenty was headed by Richard Henders and Justine Mitchell, who brilliantly played the roles of Nikolai Turbin and his sister Lena, a sympathetic woman much adored by all the men staying in the house. The last to arrive at the Turbin household is the student and poet, Larion, very well portrayed as a bit of klutz and dreamer by Pip Carter. The Hetman — the Ukrainian leader — who flees under the protection of the Germans, was strikingly played, almost as a Yes Minister character by Anthony Calf, and his aide-de-camp Leonid, the only occupant of the house in whom Lena has any romantic interest, was very well portrayed as a man of the world by Conleth Hill. Good direction by Howard Davies, and the designs by Bunny Christie gave a fine sense of space to the Turbins’ apartment and a claustrophobic sense to the spaces occupied by the military. They were complemented by Neil Austin’s excellent lighting, and the production was enhanced with music arranged by Dominic Muldowney.

Performances continue until July 7, and the £3 programme is a gem containing helpful excerpts and comments by Julie Curtis of Wolfson College, Oxford. The quotations I wrote above are all taken from her notes.

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