'Collaborators' review or 'Is this a dictator I see before me?'

'Collaborators', a new play by John Hodge
Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre, Tuesday 1st November 2011
Written for The Ham & High

Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale. Photo Credit: Johan Person

Playwright, Mikhail Bulgakov, is having nightmares. A surprisingly light-footed Stalin scampers about Bulgakov's bedroom, a typewriter poised threateningly over his head. In John Hodge's new play, 'Collaborators', Bulgakov's nightmares become a red-tinged reality, as he enters Stalin's head and gets stuck there for good.

In 1938, Bulgakov was commissioned to write a play about Stalin's birthday, to mark his 60th birthday. Two years later, he was dead. What happened in between is anyone's guess but Hodge suggests an uneasy truce materialised between the two and that they even switched roles, with Stalin penning a play and Bulgakov tending to state business.

Such a close bond between Bulgakov and Stalin might offend some but it is a brilliant central metaphor, which says much about the relative power of words. Bulgakov's plays might have had depressingly little political impact but he soon learns, to his horror, that a few words from Stalin can have unimaginably deadly consequences.

As Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) and Stalin (Simon Russell-Beale) work late into the night, a cosy but comical atmosphere emerges. Director Nicholas Hytner adds a surreal gloss to proceedings, skilfully weaving together strange rehearsals extracts, a haunting soundtrack and fantastical visions. Bob Crowley's set is jaunty and suitably disconcerting: a red-rimmed road that winds around endlessly but never really goes anywhere.

It could've all felt a bit too Wizard of Oz - with Stalin standing in as the Wicked Witch of the East - were it not for Jennings' and Russell-Beale's rich but restrained performances. Barring his first extravagant entrance, Russell-Beale keeps things low-key and savours Hodge's witty but refreshingly unwordy script. There's a ferocity tingling beneath Beale's every word, but also regret. All it takes is a near-imperceptible sinking of Beale's eyes - 'No more...terrible things' - to suggest the untold horrors that Stalin unleashed on his state.


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