The Albion Beatnik Bookshop on Walton St is the setting for performances by Poltergeist Theatre group production of Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard. From the 1920s, less than ten years after the October Revolution, Bulgakov actually produced a theatrical version of his novel, which he called Days of the Turbins. This present adaptation by director Jack Bradfield and his Poltergeist colleagues I take to be derived from the original novel rather than the play. Be that as it may, what's sure is that this is Promenade Theatre. Even though proscenium arches are fairly thin on the ground in Oxford, the novelty of PT is that it takes a non-theatrical space, here a bookshop, tossing into it cast, crew and sold-out audience of 24, and then jumping like a grasshopper from end-to-end and corner to corner within the space, dragging the audience with it.
This is a tale of war and not peace, as the anti-communist forces, the Whites, aided by their ambivalent puppet-masters Germany, struggle to resist the push by the Reds into Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, later to be annexed by the Soviet Union. The fighting by heroic and not-so-heroic White troops is verging on collapse, and the phones in the Whites' HQ are buzzing with news of those familiar fellow-travellers of defeat – blame and accusations of betrayal and sell-out, along with plenty of self-justification. The themes treated here are neither ground-breaking nor insisted upon by Bulgakov – the latter surprising to me given the political pressure, already appearing by the mid-1920s, seeking to suffocate any remnants of artistic freedom. So we witness the confusion of shifting alliances, the damage done to relationships, the rise and fall of optimism and pessimism. These things are viewed through the prism of sudden arrivals in the snow at the door of figures from the front-line, the heavy drinking to drown sorrows, and the traditional disconnect in war between the staff HQ and the squaddies facing the guns.
If the ideas displayed here are almost commonplace today in war drama, Bradfield and his gender-blind cast of eight, once a rather laborious opening from a halting narrator-turned-rapper is out of the way, engaged our interest not so much by virtue of the action taking place under our noses – though of course that's a great help - as by the conviction of the production. The confined setting of the lamp-lit bookshop, with its walls shrouded in blackout curtains and honeycomb ceiling above, serve nicely both as a dinner table and a command HQ. The frequent use of the shop door leading directly onto Walton St with its passing traffic marks it out perfectly as the demarcation line between the apprehensive city and the fighting front. The deliberately anachronistic language – mention of TVs and Playstations, and a cute line in repartee
"Divorce him, send him a text, tell him it's over!"
serve to roll away the 90 years separating Bulgakov from ourselves. The tone of the drama cleverly intermingles the serious and the comic, and this is a notably musical cast, turning from table drinking songs, via hummed refrains to the first notes of Clair de Lune on a battered piano and on to 'Raising the Dead', a poignant little lament near the end, offering a note of hope that a state of war may not be for perpetuity. It's difficult to single out particular names from our eight actors, all strong of voice and versatile of role. But I particularly liked Rosa Garland as Larion the poet, a pillar of integrity in a shifting world, Laurence Belcher as a forceful White soldier, Finlay Stroud, last seen by me as a young Spanish grandee, as the pistol-toting, volatile Shervinsky, and Jonny Wiles as a rather decadent Hetman (state president) in diaphanous scarf and head-torches.
This innovative White Guard is another nugget in the rich seam of student drama that's been mined in Oxford in the last year or two. The week's run is all sold-out, but returns may just be worth seeking out at [email protected].