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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Cottesloe)


  Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale/ Ph: Johan Person

In 2009 author John Hodge was commissioned to write a screenplay about the early days of Joseph Stalin. In his research Hodge discovered a number of facts about the youthful Stalin but nothing that resonated as a film. Then, in a biography, he saw a footnote about the writer Makhail Bulgakov, who, despite being an ardent dissident, took on an assignment to write a play about the young Stalin. Suddenly, Hodge had the idea for his film, but when he finished the script, the film people turned the project down. Not knowing where to turn, he finally followed the advice of his departing director: Make it a play.
The result is Collaborators, Hodge’s first play, which is now being given a stunning production at the National Theatre. Though the play is housed in the small, restricted Cottesloe Theatre, the National has gone all out. The production is directed by Nicholas Hytner, head of the National, and stars Simon Russell Beale, arguably Britain’s finest actor today, and Alex Jennings, a mainstay of the National who ranks right alongside Beale. The rest of the cast is equally exemplary.
At the time of the play, 1938, Bulgakov, in real life, was struggling as a writer. He had had an earlier success at the Moscow Art Theatre with a play called The White Guard,which ran for 800 performances and which Stalin had seen 15 times. After that, however, he suffered the same fate as all serious writers in Russia at the time: Unless his manuscript hued strictly to the party line, it was banned. It was at this point that he received a summons to write his Stalin play. It is also at this point that Collaborators begins. The play that ensues has elements of farce (a dotty doctor who ignores Bulgakov’s very real illness), fantasy and horror, but all are beautifully blended into a whole. In structure, the drama shows its cinematic origins, moving seamlessly from one scene to another in the manner of cuts and fades as in a film.
In the play, after an opening dream sequence, an NKDV apparatchik, Vassily (Patrick Godfrey), appears on the scene and asks Bulgakov (Jennings) to write a play about young Stalin as a surprise for the latter’s upcoming 60th birthday. Though doing so is against every one of Bulgakov’s principles, it is no longer a matter of choice; it is a matter of survival. He and his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary) live, as does most everyone in Moscow, in a small apartment with no hot water, no coffee or fresh fruit or vegetables, nothing above bare subsistence. Giving in to Vassily, Bulgakov is whisked to NKDV headquarters and given a room and a typewriter to begin his work.
Sitting in his office, Bulgakav is unable to begin, much to Vassily’s consternation. Then, suddenly and secretly, a door to Bulgakov’s office opens and Stalin, in the person of Beale, bursts into the room. This is where the macabre fantasy begins. The play is supposed to be a birthday surprise for Stalin, but of course, in Russia there are no secrets where Stalin is concerned. Slowly, inexorably in a series of meetings, the two men switch roles. Stalin begins to write the play about himself for Bulgakov – his early days in a seminary from which he is expelled, his time in jail, his transformation into a communist revolutionary. When Bulgakov, pretending that the scenes are his, gives them to Vassily, the latter is delighted.
During all of this, both as written by Hodge and played by Beale, Stalin is an unpredictable, outgoing, humorous, almost ingratiating figure. But, not surprisingly, there is a trade-off. Stalin invariably enters the sessions with an armful of official papers. Soon he is asking Bulgakov to take care of them. “I’m doing your job,” Stalin says, “why don’t you do mine?” Despite protesting how ridiculous this is, Stalin prevails. “Just write down, ‘Increased output required; must work harder; more steel needed.’ And sign my name.” And so, Bulgakov begins dealing with problems in the Soviet Union, deciding, for example, what farmers will have grain forcefully taken from them so that other sectors might have food, leaving the farmers to starve.
Bulgakov is caught in Stalin’s web in other ways: Suddenly, he and Yelena have hot water and food, he appears wearing a new suit, he is provided with a car and driver, unheard of in those days. Without realizing what has been happening to him, Bulgakov has been seduced, manipulated and, worst of all, made a party to Stalin’s terror. In the end he inadvertently and tragically betrays his wife, his friends and a young dissident writer, Grigori (William Postlethwaite), who had idolized him. When he finally tries to rebel and turn his back on Stalin, it is too late.
One could argue that the way to chronicle the savagery, the brutality, the unimaginable horror that Stalin inflicted on his people would be to present case histories of victims, or to site the statistics of the millions who were slaughtered. Hodge has taken a different tack. He has observed the man at close range, in a highly personal setting, and in doing so has demonstrated how clever, how cruel and how manipulative he was. Stalin would apparently be a close friend to someone for years and then, without warning, have the person executed. His bonhomie, in other words, was a trap. The method was to play cat-and-mouse, to keep the adversary constantly off balance. As he explains it to Bulgakov at the end, “Killing my enemies is easy. The challenge is to control their minds. And I think I controlled yours pretty well. In years to come, I’ll be able to say: ‘Bulgakov? Yeah, we even trained him. We broke him, we can break anybody.’ It’s man versus monster, Mikhail. And the monster always wins.”

For much of the play, the two men seem to be what the title suggests: collaborators. But in the end the word becomes frighteningly and tragically ironic. Stalin was anything but a collaborator; he was a monster.    



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