The Russians are coming! Actually, they’ve already arrived. And they’re everywhere. Not in Soviet-era tanks, but theatrical garb. Two of the greats: Chekhov and Bulgakov.

Sydney Theatre Company offers Andrew Upton’s take on Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard. The elegant and luminous Miranda Otto is at the centre of the work as Lena, surrounded by serious-minded and deeply politicised (try being Russian and not being politicised) men. 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.

It 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.

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 STC’s Uncle Vanya less than a year ago.

Across town at Belvoir Street Theatre, Benedict Andrews has taken Anton Chekov’s The Seagull to ’50s-style fibro holiday units, an aesthetic realised handsomely by Ralph Myers. As such, the setting moves forward half a century or so. To purists, Andrews might as well be named Arnold, but the Aussification works.

The star power is blinding: Emily Barclay, brilliant as Masha, the quintessential goth; Bille Brown’s cynical Yevgeny Dorn; Judy Davis, superbly self-absorbed as Irina Arkadina (drawing upon some of the neurosis she probably picked up from Woody); the ever-charismatic David Wenham as Aleksei Trigorin.

There’s plenty of resonance, with Shakespeare, and Hamlet in particular, in Chekov’s acute document about selfishness, insularity and middle-class malaise. The themes emerge clearly and cogently from Andrews’ perceptive production of Chekov’s incisive subtextual drama. The Seagull didn’t really fly at its late 19th-century debut, but the fact it still has momentum now confirms it as a masterpiece. At least with this coterie of talent onboard.

The details: The White Guard plays Sydney Theatre until July 10 — tickets on the company websiteThe Seagull is at Belvoir Street’s Upstairs Theatre until July 17 — limited tickets are available each day from the venue.

Peter Fray

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