Collaborators, based on a semi-fictional meeting between Mikhail Bulgakov and Josef Stalin, is much more than a simple docu-drama. The poster, with puppet-master Stalin pulling Bulgakov’s strings, looks more like the original poster for My Fair Lady than a piece about playwrights and politics. The angular stage evokes Russian architecture of the era. And Stalin first enters by rushing through a cupboard, chasing Bulgakov around the stage and hitting him with his typewriter. Doctor Zhivago this isn’t.
John Hodge, screenwriter of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, is making his stage-writing debut. He uses one tiny event of Bulgakov’s life as a springboard for the narrative. Following the imposed closure of his play, liver disease and a fifth lodger moving into his tiny flat, Bulgakov’s already tumultuous life takes another dramatic turn when the secret police demand he write Young Stalin, a play in honour of Stalin’s 60th birthday. Being politically opposed, he refuses, but the government have ways of making people obey.
…kudos to Russell Beale for daring to shed any likeability.
After this, Bulgakov goes underneath the city to discuss the play with Stalin himself. Having seen The White Guard 15 times who better to help him write? In return all Bulgakov has to do is sign some papers with ‘JS’ and the creative juices will flow.
Simon Russell Beale is a hoot as Stalin. With West Country accent and looking astonishingly like Stalin, he relishes the role, and kudos to him for daring to shed any likeability. Russell Beale is easy to warm to, but in his portrayal of a man who drives people out of jobs, causes ‘mysterious disappearances’ and leads some people to suicide, he is phenomenal. His comic ignorance, in particular, is strangely captivating. There is also lots of fun to be had watching this unpleasant, toady character played by a strapping and virtuous young man, in Young Stalin.
Alex Jennings is superb as Bulgakov – under a layer of restraint, his distress is all too apparent, and his relationship with his wife (Jacqueline Defferary) is tender and touching. Mark Addy, best known for playing likeable losers in films such as The Full Monty, may seem an unlikely secret policeman, but there is darkness beneath the charm. His line “We’re here to arrest your husband… Only joking, I love that one” says everything about the character.
Stalin is often quite ludicrous yet always remains believable.
Hodge’s masterstroke, and director Sir Nicholas Hytner’s too, is to mix some very funny ideas with some very grim details. Stalin himself is often absolutely hilarious – completely oblivious to his shortcomings, he becomes quite ludicrous (writing Young Stalin he often goes to extremes: “arms out like Jesus on the cross – too much?”), yet always remains believable. Consequently, when the play reveals the horrors of Stalinist Russia, it is especially compelling. This is partly down to Bulgakov’s realisation that while the leader of his country has been writing away in an act of vanity, he has become the enemy. And given our empathy to the characters, the play becomes much more pertinent.
One or two references to Bulgakov’s work feel forced; lines like “manuscripts do burn” felt tagged on rather than organic. And some people may leave the theatre incorrectly thinking that Bulgakov – far from the great wit that he was – was converted by Stalin. But these are minor complaints in what is yet another triumph for the National. This would be a high point for an established playwright, as a debut playwright, mingling Stalin-esque artistic styling with truly tense grit and realism, John Hodge has marked himself as one to watch.
The production continues at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe Theatre until 31 March
Tickets from £12