“It’s man versus monster Mikhail, and the monster always wins”
Apparently the play Collaborators was sent to the National Theatre on spec and as it is now opening in the Cottesloe (this was a preview) in a production directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings amongst others, it would perhaps suggest that anyone could be in with a chance of getting a play on the stage. But things are rarely as simple as they seem and although this is the debut play from John Hodge, he is a highly experienced screenwriter whose credits include Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and The Beach. His play riffs on historical fact to portray an imagined relationship between Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and one of his biggest fans, Joseph Stalin, who commissioned him to write a play about his life for his sixtieth birthday.
Set in Moscow 1938 with the repressive regime well established and the secret police encouraging people to inform on dissident neighbours, Bulgakov had been forced into the difficult position of compromising his biggest success – The White Guard (a recent great success here at the NT) – to make it politically palatable for Stalin and accepting the banning of many of his other works due to their subversive message. Thus when he was offered the chance to write the Stalin play, it made both artistic sense – in finally getting his work on the stage again, and economic sense – in that he was able to negotiate a new apartment and a much better standard of living for him and his wife. The play imagines a series of meetings between the two, getting to know each other as the play gets written but whilst Bulgakov seems to get closer to Stalin and his viewpoints, his friends and associates are left living a life of increasing fear and intimidation.
All rather serious stuff one might imagine but between Hodge’s play and Hytner’s production, things are given a rather jaunty spin, closer to the realm of fantasia, as the tone is set by the opening cartoonish sequence from which this farcical nightmare plays out on Bob Crowley’s twisting thrust stage. Alex Jennings’ Bulgakov presides over a bustling household of friends and neighbours – Jacqueline Defferary’s compassionate wife, Patrick Godfrey’s old relic Vassily and particularly William Postlethwaite’s intense young writer Grigory standing out – and their chaotic domestic situation is full of explosive character. Throw in scenes of the new play that is being written, a hagiography of Stalin’s beginnings, that is being directed by an NKVD officer with artistic visions, Mark Addy on bumptious form, and also from Bulgakov’s own plays – the final scene of Molière or The League of Hypocrites was one I recognised – and the melting pot of Russian madness is set.
But Hodge’s play is centrally concerned with this imagined relationship between Stalin and Bulgakov and the compromises that the artist has to make in dealing with a patron with such power. Because we’re in this quirky over-emphasised world, Simon Russell Beale’s Stalin is a wild-eyed caricature, a rather comic figure (even without the Saturday night audience of over-laughers) despite everything. And if we had remained in the realm of fantasy then this might have made more sense, but the tone gets increasingly darker as the benefits of Stalin’s patronage are outweighed by the pernicious effects of the repressive regime getting ever closer to his loved ones. Hodge has Bulgakov be a rather idealistic figure who believes he could change the system from within but it is hard to credit such naïveté from anyone who had lived under Stalin, never mind from a man whose very livelihood had been so severely curtailed. I had my doubts from the outset about treating Stalin with such a light comic touch and my misgivings solidified as this fantasy increasingly borrowed from real life in order to shade in a more serious tone.
Whilst watching it the play left me baffled and even now, I’m still unsure as to how I really felt about it. I never really knew how seriously we were meant to take the writing, with doubts stemming from my increasing unease at playwrights who meld fact and fiction this way, without emerging with some greater truth or clear message: there’s much of interest in Bulgakov’s biographical history that is frustratingly unexplored here. For that was the problem in the end, a lack of purpose, of a real sense of driving dramatic narrative or even an overarching revelatory point being made by this play despite its slyly satirical notes. The National Theatre do seem to struggle when it comes to new writing, especially in the Cottesloe and though it has evident appeal with its star casting, Collaborators ultimately felt like a disappointment with its difficult pairing of fact and fiction.