John Hodge’s ingenious Collaborators is one of those ‘what if?’ biographical plays in which an imaginary encounter takes place between two historical people. Two years ago the National had a big hit with Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art, based around a possible operatic collaboration between Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden. This time art collides with politics in pre-war Soviet Union as the writer Mikhail Bulgakov (Alex Jennings, who also played Britten) is reluctantly drawn into an unlikely working relationship with Josef Stalin (Simon Russell Beale).
The background is loosely based on real events. Bulgakov was commissioned to write a play about Stalin’s young life (eventually called Batum) to celebrate his 60th birthday in 1938. In reality it was Moscow Art Theatre (no doubt officially sanctioned) who made the request, but here it is the secret police NKVD – an offer Bulgakov cannot refuse, struggle as he does to produce the hagiography required. In an outrageous conceit, Hodge shows secret meetings between Stalin and Bulgakov in which the dictator actually writes the ludicrously heroic play, while he orders the playwright to deal with official Soviet state papers that turn out to have life-and-death consequences – collaborators indeed.
This entertaining first work for the stage by Hodge, best known for his screenplays for Danny Boyle including Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, did in fact start out as a film script. Like Bulgakov he was asked to write a drama about Stalin’s wild revolutionary youth (based on Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s biography) but became distracted by a footnote about Bulgakov’s commission, and appropriately decided to turn the work into a play about the ambivalent position of an artist trying to make his living in a totalitarian state.
Unlike Ronald Harwood’s morality plays Taking Sides and Collaboration, about the alleged complicity of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler and composer Richard Strauss respectively in the Nazi regime, Hodge’s black comedy approaches the issue from a sideways angle using surreal flights of fancy in the vein of Bulgakov’s own work. The play’s central conceit is not meant to be taken too literally but to show Bulgakov’s fascination with Stalin, who loved The White Guard (itself recently staged by the National) and who helped him get work in theatre even while his regime censored and banned his plays. This double-edged relationship is reflected in the way Bulgakov benefits materially from Stalin’s patronage but comes to realise how his integrity has been fatally compromised.
With the Cottesloe reconfigured to virtually in-the-round staging, Nicholas Hytner’s thoroughly enjoyable production throbs with fantastical humour, starting with a nightmare sequence in which Stalin chases Bulgakov before crushing him with his typewriter, and including hilariously over-the-top rehearsal scenes from Batum as well as from Bulgakov’s unproduced play about a persecuted playwright in an earlier oppressive regime, Molière. Bob Crowley’s playfully distorted design, featuring a cupboard through which characters enter and exit, allows for suitably fluid movement.
Though Collaborators is far from being just a star vehicle, it does feature two showcase roles which are fully realised by their players, with the cat-and-mouse games between them forming the core of the play. Jennings excels as the suavely well-intentioned but increasingly uneasy Bulgakov who gets out of his depth, outfoxed by Russell Beale’s disarmingly chummy Stalin, whose rural-accented bonhomie can suddenly give way to chilling moments of psychotic paranoia. Mark Addy also impresses as the practical joker NKVD officer/wannabe theatre director, while Jacqueline Defferary as Bulgakov’s loyal but long-suffering wife, William Postlethwaite as a young writer who loses his ideals, Patrick Godfrey as a wise-cracking former aristo and Nick Sampson as a dotty doctor all offer sturdy support.
Hodge implies that the fact that Stalin later decided not to give the go-ahead to Batum was immaterial because by then Bulgakov’s spirit had been broken, with the writer dying just a year or two later. It’s a depressing idea, though during this time Bulgakov managed to complete his classic subversive novel The Master and Margarita, which was eventually published to world acclaim after Stalin’s death – so maybe he did have the last laugh after all.