Monday, March 29, 2010

The White Guard

Whenever I try to talk about Mikhail Bulgakov I go all spluttery and purple-faced, my eyes water, I choke and gasp, and I might after a few minutes’ gibbering manage to squeak “bloody genius” – and that doesn’t express a fraction of the regard I have for his work. Mention The Master and Margarita and I fall apart completely. Refer to his novel The White Guard and I may just about manage to convey that it’s got the best ending of any book anywhere in the universe at any time.

Imagine, then, how much I was looking forward to seeing The White Guard at the Lyttelton Theatre last Saturday (20 March), in Andrew Upton’s “new version”. I read the novel in readiness, spent the afternoon at the splendid Wallace Collection, and then went to the theatre. The performance surprised me. The play was funny – and I hadn’t expected that. Yes, I expected humour – this is Bulgakov – but I suppose I had something darker in mind.

I was frustrated by not knowing how much of a new version Upton’s rewrite is. I rushed to Amazon on Monday morning, bought Six Plays edited by Lesley Milne, and raced through The White Guard wondering: what had been changed? An odd question perhaps, since this is a play which had the filthy hands of the censors all over it. Bulgakov was compelled to make many changes before it was finally passed for performance, and then only in the Moscow Art Theatre. The text I have is the 1926 censor-approved version. I spot some differences: Alexei doesn’t make a speech about the coming of the modern man, it’s the coming of the Bolsheviks that is the threat. The deserter with frost bitten feet isn’t shot, and the second scene of Act Two doesn’t seem quite so comic as Bolbotun’s repeated cries to the telephonist “don’t lose that connection” make it. Lena isn’t proposed to by all the men in her life, so Shervinsky’s comic response to her “boys” doesn’t feature.

But the humour is there: this is Bulgakov. Larion does walk dog shit on the carpet, spill red wine on the tablecloth, and get drunk. The scene when the Hetman flees is funny - and beautifully played by Anthony Calf. But once or twice the exchanges in the Turbins’ flat felt a bit too much like drawing-room comedy with their witty repartee, and the scene with Bolbotun could with just a little push have featured a Comrade Blackadderski. If Upton’s version of the play is a restoration of Bulgakov’s earlier version, it too seems to have left out some of the darker elements removed by the censors, for example a torture scene.

I don’t have - I wish I did – any of the pre-censorship versions, if they still exist, so I can’t say how Upton’s version fits with any other Bulgakovian vision of the work. But in the end the play works. It’s yet another of the many wonders of theatre, that there are so many different ways of approaching the same work. I would have played it more sombrely perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a great work, a great production, and if you can see it I say go. The laughter fades, but not the truth. And that’s pure Bulgakov.

And if anyone is thinking of making a film of The Master and Margarita then Terry Gilliam is the man to do it. Luckily he isn’t going to – read why at

Booking information for The White Guard at the National -

The Wallace Collection -

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