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Posts Tagged ‘The White Guard’

When they first read the play, I would imagine the reaction was ‘how are we going to stage this?’, such is the cinematic quality of the writing – not surprising given the playwright seems to have only ever done screenplays before. Well, I suppose if anyone was going to pull it off, it would be Nicholas Hytner (with help from Bob Crowley’s clever set with four entrances – and what seems like a lot of dangerous angles).

The starting point is of course true. Stalin liked Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard (brilliantly staged at the National just last year) which led to him being asked (?) to write something about Stalin. Beyond this, much is speculation and fantasy in John Hodge’s play. Stalin ends up writing most of the play about his early life while Bulgakov runs the country, benefiting from Stalin’s patronage to a point where it is almost Faustain.

This is all surprisingly entertaining and often funny (though it gets darker in the second half) with lots of short scenes interrupted by flash forward rehearsal scenes of the play what they are writing. Of course, when you have Alex Jennings as Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale as Stalin, two of our best actors at the height of their powers, you’ve got a head start and both deliver the goods bigtime. Mark Addy is also outstanding as a secret service officer / intermediary and there’s excellent support from Nick Sampson as a doctor, William Postlethwaite (the late great Peter’s son)  as idealistic young writer Grigory and Pierce Reid as Sergei, who inhabits the Bulgakov’s kitchen cupboard in true Bulgakov fashion!

It’s a fascinating picture of the mechanics of a tyranny and in particular Stalin’s. He only has to think of something and its done. There are acts of extraordinary generosity as well as vile deeds – everything, of course, for a reason. There is much depth to the characterisations of Bulgakov and Stalin and their mutually dependent relationship is intriguing.

At last a new play at the National worthy of the venue’s stature.

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With The White Guard, The Habit of Art and this all running in rep. in the Lyttleton at the same time, you’d be forgiven for moving in. I will be showering this ‘lost’ Terence Rattigan play with even more superlatives than I did the other two; it will go down in the NT’s history as one of its great achievements.

Soon after it begins, you think you’re at a Noel Coward play; it doesn’t seem like Rattigan at all. It isn’t until the second act when the depth and complexity comes through. What at first seems to be a satire on the decadent lives of the pre-war upper middle classes soon becomes a fascinating study of relationships and love. Quite why it is rarely produced is beyond me; I love Rattigan’s plays and this is without doubt the best of the seven I’ve seen.

Thea Sharrock’s production is masterly; so subtle and nuanced, every word, expression and movement has meaning. Hildegard Bechtler’s Drawing Room set is so realistic it’s like time travelling back 70 years. It has one of the best acting company’s put together at the National; many of them new to the NT. Adrian Scarborough moves from court jester to knowing friend and confidante (just about the only emotionally intelligent character in the play) seamlessly. Nancy Carroll is so good as the superficial socialite when she break’s down its devastating. Benedict Cumberbatch’s repression is so real you jump when he explodes. In the supporting company, Pandora Colin is a superbly comic party animal and Jenny Galloway a wonderfully pessimistic secretary.

This is such a satisfying theatrical experience – great play, terrific performances, faultless direction & design – you’d be completely bonkers to miss it.

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