Miranda Otto and the cast of The White Guard | Sydney Theatre

I was none too flattering, or at least somewhat equivocal, with regard to Sydney Theatre Company’s co-production, late last year, of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. Despite a stellar cast, it didn’t quite hit the mark. Andrew Upton and co have been more successful with another of his adaptations, of another Russian play: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

At the centre of the work is the elegant and luminous Miranda Otto, as Lena, surrounded by serious-minded and deeply politicised (trying being Russian and not being politicised) men.

The cast includes Jonathan Biggins as Hetman (a term used to describe the highest echelon of military command), Patrick Brammal, Yure Covich, Alan Dukes, Darren Gilshenan, Cameron Goodall, Alan John, John Leary, Ashley Lyons, Dale March, Richard Pyros, Tahki Saul and Aaron Tsindos. All are very good to excellent, but again I take issue with the directorial wisdom, or lack of it, in distinguishing certain characters by way of broad Aussie accents. While I wouldn’t want to hear any fake Russian ones (my ears are still recovering from Sean Connery’s ill-fated attempts, in The Hunt For Red October), a less affected reading, all round, might prove less distracting.

And while Bulgakov’s mission seems to be largely to mock and discredit all sides of the conflicts he describes (the revolution and civil war), Upton has arguably played it a little too much for outright comedy, as opposed to parody. Sitcom-strength satire is a risky business when it comes to integrating the humour with tragedy and the result here is that the play veers and careens from one to the other, like a yacht tacking in a raging sea.

Nonetheless, Upton and his actors have defined and delineated characters brilliantly: it would’ve been all too easy to turn them all into one-dimensional Russian male stereotypes, of furrowed brow and bombastic demeanour. Each has his torments, strengths, weaknesses and sensitivities.

The play, itself, has a volatile history in itself. It wasn’t, in the beginning, even a play, but a serialised novel, the entirety of which never saw light of day, as Soviet authorities banned it and close the journal in which it appeared. The play, and Bulgakov, were probably damn lucky to survive, given Bulgakov’s strident appeal to Stalin himself, to allow him the freedom to work and a forum in which to do so, or let him leave the country. Perhaps Stalin admired Bulgakov’s sheer chutzpah (no doubt he was surrounded by any number of fawning sycophants), for he saw to it that Bulgakov secured the assistant directorship of Moscow Arts Theatre. And, apparently, Joe couldn’t get enough of The White Guard, seeing it fifteen times, revelling in its depiction of the Soviet defeat of a powerful enemy.

Upton succeeds in depicting the competing ideologies, the fervour, fear and doubts that accompanied them, the opportunism of the Germans and the enormous psychic and physical costs of the engagement. All this is done, again, through meticulous character exposition: we see the macro through the prism of the micro; the effect on the masses, through the experience of individuals. As a no added cost bonus, there’s also some terrific male chorus singing. Kudos must go to musical director Alan John. The lusty folk songs are both invigorating and evocative and, when coupled with the craft of designer Alice Babidge, Nick Schlieper’s lighting and Steve Francis’ sound design, one finds oneself smack-bang in the middle of the revolution.

But, as Milan Kundera muses in The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, we can only celebrate Robespierre in the absence of eternal return; because we know the bloody toll extracted in the name of the French Revolution is far removed in time and will not occur again. Thus, we can forgive his cruelties and put him on a pedestal, as a hero of the people. Similarly, the only reason the arcane, ‘who’s on first?!’ nature of the Russian revolution and ensuing events, as well as the key players in such, can be mercilessly satirised is because we feel sure of the fiction of eternal return. For those that lived through it, or at least feel as though they have by way of intergenerational inheritance, the rather frivolous, trivial treatment that pertains to certain scenes may send something of a shiver down the spine, if not deeply offend.

It smacks of the kind of shallow interpretation one fears from those who stand well outside a culture. Of course, Upton can’t become Russian to direct a Russian play. But he could, perhaps, find a little more empathy. The kind of empathy that doesn’t come from mere research, or reading, but from immersion in a culture, and intensive, intimate engagement with people who belong to it.`

The White Guard has a few black marks against it, but, on the whole, it reaches into the collective Russian consciousness, heart and soul a lot more successfully than was the case with Uncle Vanya, less than a year ago.

The details: The White Guard plays Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay until July 10. Tickets on the company website.

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