With a cast of 23 in a grand-scale production and neither the safety of a well-known title nor a bankable author, “The White Guard” could have been an expensive gamble for the National Theater. But with helmer Howard Davies, a past master of bittersweet Russian epics, and a pungent new adaptation by Andrew Upton, the bet proves not just safe but a runaway winner.

A glimpse at the synopsis – old – style family struggles to survive during the civil war following the 1917 October revolution – suggests little more than a post-Chekhovian look back in anguish. But Upton’s wholly absorbing version of Bulgakov’s 1926 play (itself adapted from Bulgakov’s novel) enhances the tragic undertow by playing up the comedy.

Outside on the streets of Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine now under the control of the Germans, battles are raging. The war is not just the Tsarist White Guard versus the Bolsheviks but the counterattacking Ukranian Nationalists who, unseen for the entire first act, are nonetheless a tangible presence thanks to Christopher Shutt’s superb sound design of gunfire and bombs.

Inside, battles are less violent but more complicated with the rambling Turbin family – and assorted hangers-on – rattling around designer Bunny Christie’s immense but wonderfully dwindling apartment as they quaff vodka, sigh, sing, squabble, fall inappropriately in love… and quaff more vodka. Indeed, the superbly graded drunken dinner for seven is one of the production’s many set-piece highlights.

Staunch Russians at the beginning of the Soviet era, the Turbins are a dying breed – which is probably why Stalin so famously loved the play. He must have failed to spot Bulgakov’s breadth of sympathies. What makes the play so consistently engaging is his compassion for contradictory political perspectives from careerists to cowards.

Family ties and hierarchical relationships are so fully realized that relationships between the characters rings remarkably true. Davies’ huge cast, without a single weak link, conspire effortlessly to create a compellingly united atmosphere even as the wildly divided country spins out of control and into crisis.

The over-arching strength of the world is also attributable to the detailed atmosphere of Bunny Christie’s superbly engineered set design which fully exploits the technical and spatial potential of the wide and deep Lyttelton stage.

The apartment set, which looks so solid, trucks back to create a vast, empty, ruined hall, hauntingly lit by Neil Austin, in which Anthony Calf’s hilariously pompous German leader attempts to rule the roost before escaping in comically ignominious fashion.

Unfolding across an action-packed 24 hours plus a final scene set two months later, the play also parallels the political changes with personal allegiances. Practically every man who sees Elena (warm and wise Justine Mitchell) falls in love with her, notably an absurdly touching Pip Carter as the ridiculous poet Larion whose gaucheness beguiles everyone around him.

In a typically full-blooded performance, Conleth Hill embodies the play’s range as opera singer cum government official. A quick-thinking pragmatist he avails himself of a convenient disguise: “This overcoat is neutral, darling, neither Bolshevik not Menshevik. Just essence of prole.”

That degree of comic veneer allows the play’s philosophical purpose – what price honor and allegiance – to hit home, a feat made resonant by the scale of the production. At a time of forecast cuts in U.K. arts subsidy, the cumulative power of this vivid revival makes an unarguable case for what not-for-profit theater can achieve at full stretch.

The White Guard

National Theater, Lyttelton, London; 898 seats; £44 top

  • Production: A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Mikhail Bulgakov in a new version by Andrew Upton. Directed by Howard Davies.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Bunny Christie; lighting, Neil Austin; sound, Christopher Shutt; music, Dominic Muldowney; production stage manager, David Milling. Opened, reviewed March 23, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.
  • Cast: Elena Turbin - Justine Mitchell Alexei Turbin - Daniel Flynn Nikolai Turbin - Richard Henders Vicktor - Paul Higgins Leonid Yurevich - Conleth Hill Larion - Pip Carter Talberg - Kevin Doyle Alexander - Nick Fletcher Hetman - Anthony Calf Fyodr, Maxim - Barry McCarthy Von Shratt - Mark Healy Von Durst - Stuart Martin Bolbotun - Dermot Kerrigan Franko - Graham Butler Galanba - Peter Campion Cobbler - Gunnar Cauthery With Hannah Croft, Marcus Cunningham, Paul Dodds, Keiran Flynn, Michael Grady-Hall, Nick Julian, Daniel Millar
  • Music By: