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
Sunday 28 March 2010
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
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