There’s a moment about halfway through Mikhail Bulkagov’s The White Guard in which Leonid (Patrick Brammall), a Ukrainian soldier who mostly speaks Russian, is commanded to speak only Ukrainian by the Hetman (a reassuringly familiar Jonathan Biggins), the Ukraine’s head of state. Speaking Ukrainian doesn’t come naturally to Leonid, so he struggles to convey his message in broken sentences and exaggerated hand gestures before finally being told to “just speak Russian if you need to make a point.” In Andrew Upton’s translation, however, the scene is rendered entirely in English and comes to resemble a Kiev-set episode of ’Allo ’Allo. It’s a clever approach that yields comedic dividends, but Bulgakov’s pointed examination of nationalism and political identity falls by the wayside in the process.
Issues of political relevance threaten to unsettle this otherwise engaging production of The White Guard, also directed by Upton. Set in the Ukraine during the Russian Civil War in 1918, it centres on the Turbin family, members of the White Army fighting the Bolsheviks’ attempt to seize Kiev. As the October Revolution unfolds and the Bolsheviks advance, the Turbins struggle with ideology, personal relationships and the intersection between the two.
An ensemble of 13 men, aided by a rousing score from Alan John, provide a consistently visceral energy that underscores the struggles of Lena (Miranda Otto) to keep her family together in the upheaval. Otto’s performance is radiant without being obtrusive; her physical and vocal ease palpable. Darren Gilshenan, one of this country’s most talented and versatile performers, is also exemplary as her brother Alexei. Their absolute assuredness in performance is especially marked in comparison with some younger members of the company, for whom the effort to fill the vast Sydney Theatre both vocally and psychologically is still visible. Luckily, Upton’s direction is agile and sophisticated, preventing boredom from creeping in during this three-hour epic. He is well aided by Alice Babidge’s set which uses moving walls and sparse decoration to cleverly shift between the Turbins’ home and the officialdom of Kiev.
At its core, the play is about the futility of war, the impossibility of a cohesive national identity, and the battle between tradition and progress. These are worthy themes, poignantly explored both in Bulgakov’s story and Upton’s translation, most notably in two eloquent speeches from Gilshenan and Otto. No matter the standard of the translation and production, however, the fact remains that this is a play about the Ukraine in 1918. Though the production is visually and technically faultless, at the end of the night it is hard to answer why Bulgakov’s play, so inextricably tied to the specific conditions of the October Revolution, should command our attention in 2011.