The White Guard

Conleth Hill catches the eye in London, writes Peter Geoghegan

Conleth Hill is no stranger to stealing the show on the international stage – he received Tony nominations for both Stones in his Pocket and The Seafarer – and the Ballycastle native is at it again, this time in the captivating, compelling The White Guard at London’s National Theatre.

Playing lieutenant Leonid Shervinsky, a seductive, shape-shifting apparatick, Hill delivers a bravura performance, with more than a little help from Australian dramatist Andrew Upton’s near note-perfect adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Day of the Turbins.

The play follows the middle-class Turbin family as they are torn apart by war, political change and, ultimately, modernity itself. The two Turbin brothers, Alexei and Nikolai, and their sister, Elena, are all loyal supporters of the pro-Tsarist White Guard that, briefly,

propped up a German puppet in Ukraine following Russia’s exit from World War One in 1917. But while inside their opulent Kiev apartment the Whites drink vodka to toasts of ‘the Tsar will prevail’, outside Petlyura’s nationalist forces and, ultimately, the Bolsheviks have already signed the death notice on the Turbins, and their entire class.

The Brutalist architecture of the South Bank’s iconic National is a fitting backdrop for a drama that is, in essence, about the destruction of an older way of life. Middle-class, ‘white Russia’, is something Bulgakov knew well – the son of a university professor, his family was comfortably off – and the White Guard’s eventual defeat is less a movement in the great post-war battle between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and more a prelude to the ultimate annihilation of the playwright’s class under communism.

Upton wears this heavy historical load with remarkable lightness, while the expertly reproduced, incredibly impressive period sets bring the drama to life. In all, four separate stages rise and fall, appear then disappear in the course of the play, the packed house collectively gasping as they are brought from the Turbins living room to the frontline via the trenches and doomed imperial palace.

This lavish production is matched by the performances: while Hill is the star of the show, revelling in the role of the duplicitous if likable Shervinsky, it is hard to find fault with any of the acting. Justine Mitchell brings a noble stoicism to the character of Elena Turbin while Paul Higgins, best known as Malcolm Tucker’s swearing Scottish sidekick in The Thick Of It, perfectly balances belligerence and humanity in his depiction of the battle-hardened White Guard Viktor.

The subject matter is serious but there is humour a plenty, albeit of a distinctly gallows flavour. In the closing scene Hill’s Shervinsky appears at the apartment of Elena, his lover, wearing a natty trench coat: ‘neither Bolshevik nor Menshevik, just essence of prole’, he remarks, twirling in the latest sartorial style.

The fictional Shervinsky, it seems, was more adroit at surviving the successive regime changes than his real-life creator. Bulgakov died in 1940, aged 49, broken and marginalised by a Soviet system that treated him as a dangerous, subversive element.

The Day of the Turbins was Bulgakov’s only literary success in his lifetime. Remarkably the play ran in Russian theatres throughout the repression and Stalin himself attended the play some 20 times – apparently its depiction of the Whites as a noble group delighted the tyrant, demonstrating that the Bolshevik’s had defeated a worthy opponent.