at the Cottesloe Theatre, Tuesday 20th March 2012
“What if…” pieces are always intriguing, offering an alternative view of history. It’s extraordinarily tempting to imagine Shakespeare and Dickens conversing in a pub, or Newton being educated by Einstein. We love to imagine these conversations, and consider how history would be different if these conversations were possible. In Collaborators, John Hodge asks “What if Josef Stalin helped Mikhail Bulgakov to write plays and in return Bulgakov helped him with affairs of state?” The result is a witty, intelligent play which, even though it tries a little too hard to appeal to our hearts, asks some big questions.
After the success of The White Guard, the playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is asked (read: forced) to write a play for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday (he is a huge fan of the aforementioned play, having seen it fifteen times). Naturally, the writer wants to create an artistically sound piece of theatre, whilst his paymasters wish him to make something which praises Vozhd in all his glory. After a week struggling to create anything of worth, he is summoned by Uncle Joe himself, with whom he collaborates so both of them are able to get their work done. Along the way, Stalin realises the difficulties in writing and structuring a play, whilst Bulgakov becomes implicit in some of the atrocities of the Soviet regime.
It’s not hard to see what Hodge thinks of the art question here: it is impossible to create good art if one is given preconditions – i.e., no good art can be created under censorship. I think most of us can agree on that: the hilariously awful excerpts from “Young Stalin” prove this. The interesting debate, however, is about Bulgakov’s position. After being relinquished of the shame of writing an awful play, he begins to defend decisions about grain in the provinces which are costing lives. His initial hatred of his leader becomes far less clear-cut, and we are shown that those in power don’t have the luxury of ideology that many of us do: they have to balance arguments before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Hodge is supremely successful, and the two-handed scenes between Stalin and Bulgakov are without doubt the most superior.
Where the play falls flat, slightly, is in Hodge’s portrayal of Bulgakov’s home life. The writer and his wife, Yelena, live with a whole host of other bohemians, who are somewhat stock and serve only the purpose of allowing an emotional outlet for Bulgakov. They seem superfluous, for this exact dilemma could just as easily be communicated to his wife alone. The core argument – that of the difficulties of ideology in art – is present in the one-on-one scenes, and we gain very little from the presence of other characters in the Bulgakov household.
Nicholas Hytner’s production is beautifully crafted, taking images and techniques from Communist propaganda. George Fenton & Paul Ardiiti’s music and sound are used in an almost cartoon-style way, and Jon Clark’s lighting acts as a frame around certain scenes. The tone of Hytner’s direction shifts from grimy socialist realism to stylised choreography, and is set beautifully on Bob Crowley’s red and black scenic design, looking like its been lifted straight off of a Soviet poster, complete with jagged lines and uneven floor.
A solid ensemble is led by three superb actors. Mark Addy’s Vladimir, the chief of police, lies on the borderline of ridiculous, but manages to retain a humanity which allows us to understand how difficult he finds his job. Simon Russell Beale’s portrays Stalin as an idiotic, frail but supremely passionate man who flips at an instant. There is something supremely menacing about his quietness, and the Somerset accent only adds to the confusion we feel towards him. Alex Jennings completes the trio as Bulgakov, rarely leaving the stage and providing the narrative drive and voicing the audience’s own internal debate.
It does feel at times like Collaborators is trying to tackle a few too many questions without ever fully exploring any of them, but what Hodge shows us is a world in which it is impossible to say what you feel openly. Although it is entirely fiction, the meetings between Stalin and Bulgakov feel extraordinarily real, and we are forced to ask ourselves whether the old maxim suggesting that artists would be better at politics than politicians is true after all.