A drama set in a Ukraine torn in all directions by civil war may not seem like the best prospect for an entertaining Tuesday night, but Andrew Upton’s new version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard balances its pathos with a healthy sense of humour.
The Turbins, you see, like their vodka. Lena and her brothers Nikolai and Alexei play host to friends, fellow White Guard soldiers and their geeky cousin Larion in their Kiev apartment, fuelling their heated discussions about the current turmoil with many glasses of Russia’s favourite tipple.
The Russian Revolution is over, the Bolsheviks are in power in Petrograd, and Ukraine, led by the weak, pro-German Hetman, is caught in a power struggle between the Red Army, the Germans, the nationalists and the tsarist White Guard, for which the Turbins are preparing to fight.
But first they will get drunk. Though the country is divided, there is an endearing and realistic sense of community chez Turbin. They bicker and quarrel, sing and declaim, hug and plead, all the while slipping out of sobriety. Pip Carter is the amusingly gauche Larion, Paul Higgins is a tough-talking Captain with surely the only Scottish accent in Ukraine, Richard Henders is younger brother Nikolai, as yet unspoiled by the effects of war, and Justine Mitchell is Lena, the only woman in the story and the one whose affections they all court.
Also among the characters seated at the table is Leonid Shervinsky, the right hand man of the Hetman, who is in love with Lena and sees his chance when her weak, cowardly husband, a member of the Hetman’s government, flees to Berlin. Though there is much humour in Upton’s adaptation, Conleth Hill’s Shervinsky generates much of it. Hilariously confident and self-serving, this charismatic, opera-singing Lieutenant nevertheless holds a genuine affection for Lena, and though she realises he is no less cowardly than her husband, he wins her over, as he does the audience. A scene in the Hetman’s palace, when Anthony Calf’s Hetman insists they speak in Ukrainian rather than Russian, provides laughter of sitcom proportions.
Indeed, there is more than a little of the sitcom about Howard Davies’s production. Upton’s language is contemporary – I would not have assumed that “nice one” was a regularly used expression of praise in 1918 Ukraine – and ‘Allo ‘Allo springs to mind more than once, particularly when the Hetman is disguised as an injured German general so that he can escape Kiev for Berlin.
Bunny Christie’s set is impressive, utilising every inch of the Lyttelton theatre’s stage to transform the space from the sprawling apartment of the Turbins to the Hetman’s palace, an army HQ and a school hall. The piece also makes full use of the National’s box of tricks; snow falls outside, gun shots are fired and explosions rock the set as the play comes to its poignant conclusion.
It is left to Shervinsky to bring humour back to proceedings, which he does while also succinctly suggesting the entanglement of political allegiances that has left the Turbins – and everyone else in Ukraine – unsure who to support and how to proceed. For Shervinsky, it is about survival, and if he must be a chameleon and adapt to the ever-changing situation in Ukraine, then he will do it, which is why he shrugs off his uniform and dons a plain overcoat that he hilariously – if tactlessly – claims has “essence of prole”. It is the line of the night.