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The White Guard

The Sunday Telegraph 3rd June 1979

Michael Bulgakov’s attempt to dramatise his novel “The White Guard” (Aldwych) – an epic account of the many-sided struggle for political control of the Ukraine in the winter of 1918-1919 – might have seemed foolhardy; but, in the event, the work has established itself as a classic of the Soviet theatre. Inevitably, a certain simplification and schematisation had to be imposed, and no less inevitably, the domestic scenes are more convincing than those of ferocious action.

Censorship also forced Bulgakov into some artistic dishonesty – as when the White Russian colonel, Alexei Turbin, tells his squad of students “The White cause is finished – finished everywhere” (in fact, at that time it was far from finished in the Ukraine), or when, at the close, the beaten and broken survivors rally unconvincingly to greet the Red Dawn to the sound of the Internationale – after which, no doubt, an unwritten epilogue would have shown them before a firing-squad.

Known in the Moscow Art Theatre as “The Second Seagull” the play is full of Chekhovian echoes. As the flabby, accident-prone Lariosik, Richard Griffiths, skilfully repeats what is, in essence, his performance as the King of Navarre in “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” Michael Pennington is good as the vain, lying, charming Shervinsky, and Juliet Stevenson even better as the outwardly composed but inwardly seething Yeliena. A great novel has become a less than great but totally absorbing play. See it.

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