In 1939, the great Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov was commissioned to write a play about the country’s dictator, Josef Stalin. This was in many ways a poisoned chalice: many of Bulgakov’s plays were banned under the Soviet regime (except The Days of the Turbins/The White Guard, a personal favourite of Stalin’s), and as an opponent of all the regime stood for it was his most difficult commission. The play was completed (called Batum) but never passed for performance; it is considered his weakest work.
This commision is the seed for John Hodge’s new play, ‘Collaborators’, which is currently showing at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe (and then transferring to the Olivier), directed by Nicholas Hytner. We first meet Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) in the small apartment he shares with his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary), young worker Sergei (Pierce Reid, who lives in the kitchen cupboard, bare as the house has no food), former aristocrat Vassily (Patrick Godfrey) and Praskovya (Maggie Service), a teacher of history. They are poor but defiant.
Into this life we hear of Bulgakov’s uneasy dreams about Stalin, and his declining health – flagged in an amusing interlude with a dotty doctor (Nick Sampson). Once secret policeman Vladimir (Mark Addy) visits and asks for a play to celebrate the 60th birthday of Stalin, things start to change for the writer – and he starts to change to, following a series of visits where he collaborates with his own subject (Simon Russell Beale), to the point where they start to become each other – Bulgakov mouthing the propaganda of his leader in casual conversation, and Stalin excitedly shaping ‘Young Josef’ for the stage.
‘Collaborators’ might be initially read as a comedy, and Russell Beale plays off Jennings very well – with some sharp scenes of comedy. But after the interval the play takes a darker turn, becoming a black comedy, and a tragedy too. The performances throughout are uniformly excellent, although much of it is a two-hander between two masterful actors at the top of their game.
The concept of ‘Collaborators’, especially in its staged scenes from the banned Moliere play, brings to mind Bulgakov’s most well-known work, his novel The Master and Margarita, which is a thinly-veiled critique of the Stalinist regime and all its horrors, where people are tried and shot according to quota, where people go to work and never return home, where further enquiries are catastrophic. This novel was a sharp satire with a sense of the ridiculous – and this is where Lodge’s play succeeds, in presenting a monster in a black comedy coat, and the collapse and tragedy of a man and a nation with smoke and mirrors.