After the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch (returning to the Barbican in November), we now have the National Theatre’s new production of The White Guard - and it likewise plays out against the tumult, chaos and upheaval of war. But the differences are not just black and white, they’re chalk and cheese.
Conleth Hill (Leonid) and Anthony Calf (The Hetman) in The White Guard by Bulgakov at the Lyttelton, National Theatre Photo: Tristram Kenton
Here the canvas is more domestic. The play begins in the living room of the Turbin family, where two brothers, their sister and a cousin are holed up as dissent against the ruling German-backed puppet government of the hetman foments on the streets outside. The brothers are preparing to fight for the White Guard in the battle for control of 1918 Kiev.
Written across a broad, epic canvas, and given a bravura production to match that teams with life and incident, director Howard Davies marshals the combined forces with masterly skill. There are few directors to equal him for sketching the big picture but also illuminating every corner of it with tiny, revealing details.
And he’s impeccably served here by a richly brilliant cast of 27 actors, offering the kind of experience that only a theatre with the stature (and funding) of the National can provide. It’s especially wonderful to see actors like Justine Mitchell, playing the sole female character in the play, and Conleth Hill, who have both worked extensively at the National before, emerging as house stars.
But then this is the National firing on all cylinders simultaneously, which proves that in the immediate wake of London Assurance they have another resounding hit on their hands.