Michael Bartholomew-Biggs reviews the National Theatre production of

 Collaborators

by John Hodge 

directed by Nicholas Hytner

 

Having seen Collaborators twice – one on stage and once on screen via NT Live – I strongly recommend readers to try and catch it during its extended run into and beyond January 2012 (even if it means queuing in the early morning for a day ticket).    John Hodge’s play contains elements of both farce and tragedy and is a grim warning of the corrupting effects of totalitarian government even on those who resist it.

Collaborators is based on an episode in the life of Mikhail Bulgakov, the Russian playwright who was often at odds with the Soviet regime in the 1930s.  The play takes off from the surprising fact that in 1938 Bulgakov was invited (or perhaps commanded?) to write a quasi-hagiographic play about Stalin’s early life.   Hodge’s fictional drama imagines that Stalin himself becomes involved as a co-author of the play when Bulgakov suffers an understandable attack of writer’s block.   The scenes between these two are among the best in the piece: while Stalin is busy writing scenes in the play, Bulgakov is subtly and amusingly drawn into helping with decisions about state policy.

Nicholas Hytner’s  direction makes good use of the in-the-round space of the Cottesloe Theatre by allowing plenty of movement along the  four runways by which characters can come and go – one of them allowing entrances and exits through a kitchen cupboard.  A key part of the set is the plain table in the central space.  This is sometimes the place where members of Bulgakov’s household take their meagre breakfasts and sometimes the desk at which Stalin and Bulgakov do their literary collaboration.   The live screening of the play could do full justice to the dynamics of movement around the different areas and levels of the set; but I did not feel disadvantaged by seeing the performance from the single viewpoint of a theatre seat.

Hodge’s script offers good opportunities to most of the characters – except perhaps to one secret policeman who has no lines to speak until very late in the second act (and Marcus Cunningham does well to exude silent menace and contempt during the rest of his time on stage).   Obviously, Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) and Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) have the biggest chance to catch the attention – and both take full advantage.  Mark Addy also stands out as Vladimir the cynical secret policeman who discovers a latent taste for the theatre (even though he claims to consider actors less trustworthy than employees of the KGB).

For much of the play Russell Beale’s Stalin is on the verge of being likeable.  He has – or pretends to have – a naive admiration for Bulgakov’s literary skills and a self-awareness about his own lack of sophistication that is rather appealing.  It is the fixity of the gaze above his ready smile which hints that  a monster and psychopath may lurk behind the rough charm.  Russell Beale’s fine and engaging characterization is perhaps all the more memorable for stopping short of outright impersonation.  (In particular he sports a trimmed down version of the real Stalin’s luxuriant moustache; and I wonder if I was alone in being reminded of Peter Sellers in the part of the communist trade unionist Fred Kite in the 1950s film I’m All Right Jack. 

If Stalin is inevitably a larger-than-life character, Bulgakov is played in a much more naturalistic way by Alex Jennings.  He is portrayed as a man whose courage and principles can be undermined by his own artistic ambitions.  When dealing with the cartoon-like faces of authority – Stalin, Vladimir and Nick Sampson’s wonderfully tatty and lecherous doctor,  Bulgakov functions rather like a  straight man, providing feeds for comic lines.  But among the relatively normal characters in his domestic and literary circle he is able to give a more nuanced performance as he tries to explain himself to his friends (and to himself) when admiration for his resistance to the state gives way to accusations of collaboration.  Even his loyal wife, Yelena (tenderly played by Jacqueline Defferary), dismayed by reading the play he is supposed to have written,  struggles to understand him.

The mood of the production moves, in a well-judged way, from grimly humorous and quite surreal to genuinely dark and more realistic,  particularly in the second act as characters begin to disappear as a consequences of Stalin’s purges.   In the end we understand who has manipulated whom and how it was done.  And we probably wonder whether similar techniques would work on us (if we were important enough to be a threat to someone).