The White Guard, NT Lyttelton, London
Romeo and Juliet, Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon
Macbeth, Barbican Theatre, London

A superb revival of Bulgakov's Russian civil war play starts as domestic comedy and ends in panic, chaos and betrayal

Nikolai has his feet up. Big woolly socks on the dining table. Guitar on his lap. He is making up joke folk songs while his sister Elena rustles up supper and their older brother, Alexei Turbin, sits writing and tells Nikolai to knock the caterwauling on the head.

Thus Mikhail Bulgakov's Russian masterpiece The White Guard – long forgotten in this country, but now superbly revived by Howard Davies – begins as a beautifully naturalistic domestic comedy. Based on the playwright's own family, the Turbins are intellectuals whose spacious, dilapidated Kiev apartment is an open house for friends and extended family. Justine Mitchell's lovely, humorous, long-suffering Elena takes everything in her stride as unexpected guests pile in, half-frozen: a gawky student-cousin (Pip Carter), a hot-headed army captain (Paul Higgins), a flamboyantly rakish tenor (Conleth Hill). At supper, they hurl back double vodkas and make reeling-drunk speeches in praise of the furnishings. There's farcical romance too, for they all adore their unhappily married hostess.

However, this isn't turn-of-the-century Chekhov, with only a hint of social upheavals to come. The clock has been ticking and this is the Ukraine in 1918, in the wake of the October Revolution. Outside on the streets it's civil war and, in fact, almost every man at supper is steeling himself to go into battle the next day, fighting for the Tsarists on the side of the White Guard.

So the intimate opens out into an epic struggle, more like War and Peace. There are scenes of military chaos, fatal panic and political shenanigans as Ukraine's puppet ruler, known as the Hetman, and allied German troops shamelessly scarper, leaving the White Guard high and dry – and doomed.

Davies' company deftly combine political satire and tragedy. Maybe the pompous Hetman and his War Minister (Anthony Calf and Kevin Doyle) are just a fraction too John Cleese-ish. Really though, the ensemble is near- flawless. Andrew Upton's new English adaptation risks modern idioms and gets away with it delightfully, and (arguing that the original was censored) intensifies the bleakness at the close.

Davies' productions of lesser-known Russian gems have been jewels in the National Theatre's crown over the past 12 years. Don't miss this one.

Meanwhile, Rupert Goold has staged his first production as an RSC associate, trailing clouds of glory after his Olivier Award win last week (for Enron).

Unfortunately, as the mist clears, his Romeo and Juliet is revealed to be a sorry letdown – embarrassingly bad. Having earned his reputation as a clever concept director, it now seems Goold is in such demand that he's churning out some of his shows, merely bolting on a few half-baked ideas.

You might, indeed, think you're watching tourist tat as Sam Troughton's charmless, gawping Romeo – in scruffy army surplus – stumbles into a cathedral and is handed a set of headphones, so we hear Shakespeare's prologue in the form of an audio guide. Trough-ton is then sucked into the past, or is it some hammy son et lumière? The feuding Capulets and Montagues rush in flailing and shouting. The ladies launch into a cat fight, while Richard Katz's Lord Capulet lurches about in a doublet and Doc Martens, dodging jets of fire and steam that squirts through floor grilles. The Church really needs to sort out its sewers.

The programme notes speak of the characters' use of lurid Catholic imagery and allusions to religious hatred. Yet Goold appears to have encouraged a blithely multicultural Verona, with multiple regional accents, and a Gypsy-Aztec dance fusion at the ball. Whatever.

There is one stunning Catholic-turned-romantic image, when the young lovers stand on Juliet's balcony, surrounded by a sunburst of gold, like an erotic alternative to Bernini's The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa. Elsewhere too, Mariah Gale does her best as Juliet, with flashes of passion, desperation and coltish stubbornness.

Still, most of the cast are god-awful. Jonjo O'Neill plays Mercutio as a camp, psychotic miso-gynist with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And Christine Entwisle's Lady Capulet, in a fit of experimental stylisation, runs a mini-marathon round Juliet's deathbed, merely provoking incredulous titters. Jeez.

By contrast, Declan Donnellan has thought out his directorial concept with thoroughgoing clarity in his engrossing Cheek by Jowl production of Macbeth. He has long been populating Shakespeare's plays with phantoms: characters who quietly appear, as if in the mind's eye, when others speak or think of them. In that vein, the Scottish Play – being rife with super-natural visions – should be richly rewarding. The surprise twist, however, is that barely any of the normally materialising apparitions materialise.

Instead, Will Keen's pallid, shorn-headed, quivering Macbeth is a man with a feverish imagination. The Weird Sisters are whispers, emerging from a shadowy army that stands behind him on the battlefield, as if the forces of evil are voices in his head. Indeed, the Macbeths are a pair of mentally unstable fantasists who, one senses, found each other as adolescents and have clung to each other ever since. When Anastasia Hille's Lady Macbeth conjures the "spirits that tend on mortal thoughts", she's like a wraith-thin child trying to cast spells.

It has to be said, Donnellan's supporting ensemble are no match for Keen and Hille. Still, the fluid eliding of scenes is brilliantly chilling, making Macbeth's rise preternaturally swift. The emptiness of the dream, once attained, is also eerily evoked as every prop is mimed. The King and Queen sit at their deserted coronation banquet – lonely insomniacs at an invisible table, eating the air.

Most poignantly, at the end it is the ghost of his wife that haunts Macbeth. He sees her before him, mutely smiling while he strokes her cheek, even as her women's offstage cries announce her suicide. And we see her once again, wandering across the final battlefield to lie beside his corpse – more heartbreaking, against all the odds, than Romeo and Juliet.

'The White Guard' (020-7452 3000) to 15 Jun; 'Romeo and Juliet' (0844 800 1110) to 27 Aug; 'Macbeth' (020-7638 8891) to 10 Apr

Next Week:

Kate Bassett reports back on Behud, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's new drama about the fundamentalist threats that closed her previous play, Behzti, and sent her into hiding

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935