Collaborators is a new play by John Hodge (screenwriter of Trainspotting and The Beach) currently on show at the Cottesloe Theatre in London until March 31st. As part of the National Theatre Live initiative to showcase the best of British theatre, Collaborators was broadcasted live to cinemas across the UK and around the world on December 1st 2011. Impact Arts was lucky enough to catch a viewing.
In a cramped flat in Moscow, 1938, a man is woken by loud knocking from the inside of a cupboard. He gets up – and suddenly Josef Stalin bursts out from the cupboard. The two are caught in a surreal dance. Eventually Stalin seizes a typewriter and raises it over the head of the cowering man – and there the dream ends.
The dreamer is Mikhail Bulgakov (Alex Jennings), playwright and dissident under the Stalinist regime, plagued by recurring visions of the dictator in his house. And so this excellent new play, written by Hodge and directed with flair by Nicholas Hytner, weaves through chilling reality and absurd fantasy. In everyday life Bulgakov, his sparky and endearing wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary) and housemates Vassily and Praskovya have little reason to be cheerful. Economic depression hangs over Moscow, and the bare cupboard now contains a new arrival, the naïve, awkward youth Sergei (played with impeccable comic timing by Pierce Reid) who is forced to share their accommodation. As the sickly Bulgakov is steered to visit a memorably zany doctor (Nick Sampson) by Yelena, his thoughts are elsewhere, on his new play dramatizing the life of French dramaturge Molière.
It seems Molière will bring salvation for the struggling playwright, but after the triumphant opening, Bulgakov is visited an NKVD officer, Vladimir, who informs him his play will be banned by the Soviet authorities, unless he pens a drama within a month to celebrate Stalin’s ‘greatness’ in time for the dictator’s birthday. Mark Addy provides brilliant comic support as Vladimir, cheery and bluff in his threats, before promising “A secret policeman’s word is his bond”. Initially Bulgakov refuses, as his political views leave him little room to empathise with the Soviet master. But threatened by the secret police, he finally agrees to write the play, abandoning any hope of escaping to Europe. It is a decision made all the more poignant when Bulgakov is diagnosed with nephrosclerosis and given just a year to live.
Struggling to begin writing, Bulgakov receives a mysterious phone call at night. It directs him to a hidden location, where he finds himself face to face with the man of his nightmares, Stalin (Simon Russell Beale). Astonishingly, Stalin – or Josef, as he asks Bulgakov to call him – is a good-humoured, amusing man, unlike the terrifying image of the dictator. Even more disquietingly for Bulgakov, Stalin calls himself his “biggest fan”. He is quite aware of the play being written about him – “I don’t like surprises” he explains darkly. Stalin writes the first scene of ‘Young Josef’ on Bulgakov’s behalf, sensing the playwright’s difficulties.
Bulgakov pays further visits, and while the dictator composes scenes, Bulgakov is given the chance to do Stalin’s work – look over reports and write comments pressing for further improvement. When the playwright expresses reservations, Stalin himself admits to being unqualified – and anyway, “Somebody has to do it”. Bulgakov gives into the temptation to influence the whole Soviet Union simply by signing himself “JS” – the dictator is impressed with the playwright’s comment “Increase production…or else”. Thus the two begin a collaboration, on the play and the rule of the state, which Stalin assures him will be their secret.
As Bulgakov unwittingly drifts further and further from his original liberal ideals, there is a bleak parallel to him in his friend Grigory (William Postlethwaite), the young, idealistic writer who is banned for holding true to his political views. In signing himself “JS”, Bulgakov signs away his soul, losing his own identity as a nonconformist in a downward spiral of terror and forced disappearances. Despite Stalin’s humorous façade, there is something deeply rotten ever-present beneath the exterior. “Nephrosclerosis doesn’t disappear by itself” says Bulgakov when he is declared miraculously free of the disease, and neither does the dark cancer of Stalin’s reign, underneath the wit and laughs of the play.
The winning combination Jennings and Beale was a delight, with both actors fully inhabiting their roles. Jennings excels as the weary but sharp-witted Bulgakov whose aspiration to improve the world through art is tragically smothered. The bright imagination and sensitivity of the playwright shine through in his performance. Beale is terrific as the slightly wild, droll Stalin, revelling in his words and creating a hypnotic presence that lulls the audience into a false sense of security just as much as Bulgakov. In their scenes together the two command the stage.
Collaborators is an immersive in-the-round production in the intimate Cottesloe Theatre, and watching the play through NT Live gets you as close to the action as though you are sitting in the front row. The staging also reflects the ominous feeling that in a police state, Bulgakov and the people around him are always being watched. The crazed, winding set conveys the Spartan interior of the cramped flat which affects the nerve-wracked Bulgakov’s mind as it did in his life, and a fine score complements the action.
The play’s success among audiences and critics has led to an additional run being planned for next year, so another chance to see Collaborators is highly recommended, as it is a memorable warning of the destructive possibilities when freedom of art and expression is strangled.
The National Theatre Live season continues this year with Travelling Light (9th-11th February) and The Comedy of Errors (1st-3rd March) are both being shown at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema.