Monday, December 19, 2011

Strange Bedfellows: Collaborators

Collaborators – a new play by John Hodge

Many artists in Stalin’s Soviet Union were branded enemies of the state; the lucky ones were robbed of their livelihood but spared their lives. But Stalin had a peculiar fondness for the novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, whom he shielded from the periodic purges that doomed so many others. He even got Bulgakov a job at the Moscow Art Theater at one point – though when his late plays were deemed unacceptable for production, Stalin didn’t intervene. The unorthodox and surprising relationship between the dictator and the author was the starting point for Collaborators, a play by John Hodge (the screenwriter of Trainspotting) that is currently receiving a production at the Cottesloe, the intimate black-box space at London’s National Theatre. (It was shown internationally in HD earlier this month.)

The play is set in 1938, at the moment when Bulgakov (Alex Jennings, the fine actor who played Prince Charles in the film The Queen) learns that his play Molière has been closed down by the government after only a single night – and that he’s dying of a kidney ailment known as nephrosclerosis. (He was dead by 1940, one of the rare major writers of the Stalin era to expire from natural causes.) He’s approached by one of Stalin’s secret agents, Vladimir (Mark Addy), with a proposition: if he dedicates himself to honoring Stalin’s sixtieth birthday by writing a flattering portrait of his youth, then Molière can reopen. But Mikhail finds the task so uncongenial, especially with Vladimir hovering about, rushing him and demanding to see his pages (the play has to be produced – under Vladimir’s direction, no less – in a little over a month), that it paralyzes him. Then he finds himself summoned to a secret chamber in the dead of night that turns out to be part of the Kremlin, where Stalin himself (Simon Russell Beale) appears. The men become unlikely collaborators, or rather they switch roles. Stalin writes Young Stalin himself while encouraging Bulgakov to take a hand in the running of the government – at first just signing documents with Stalin’s initials, then gradually attempting to introduce a humanistic voice and prevent injustice. But the situation is beyond repair; all he succeeds in doing, however, is to make things worse – tightening the bureaucratic tangle that is the USSR, heightening the atmosphere of paranoic hysteria, increasing the number of arrests. Meanwhile the act of writing (really ghost-writing) an extended tribute to Stalin compromises Bulgakov in every conceivable way. He and his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferay) are the beneficiaries of all the signs of Stalin’s favor: their lifestyle changes dramatically and Mikahil even finds he’s obtained an appointment at a clinic that serves only party officials.

Simon Russell Beale & Alex Jennings
Hodge’s inspiration for this satirical fantasia is a bizarre footnote in Bulgakov’s biography: his final play, Batum, was indeed a complimentary vision of Stalin’s youth (though it wasn’t even permitted to go into rehearsal). The idea is ingenious one for a comedy, but the play isn’t really a comedy. I’d class it as political melodrama – at least that’s what it turns into during the second act. And as satire it’s incoherent because the two central themes – the compromise of Bulgakov’s principles and the notion that in a bureaucracy language takes on a life of its own (which is the reason Mikhail’s idealistic efforts to improve the lives of well-meaning, hard-working people keep backfiring) – keep knocking into each other like billiard balls. You feel as if you’re watching two different plays.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is ambitious. At moments he and Hodge try to replicate Bulgakov’s unique style (somewhat expressionist, somewhat constructivist, proto-absurdist), especially in the recurring nightmare that opens the play (Mikhail imagines Stalin descending upon him and smashing him over the head with his own typewriter). The Young Vic tried something similar last summer in their production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, where it worked only intermittently; here it doesn’t seem to work at all, though you admire Hytner’s use of the Cottesloe space and certainly the designer Bob Crowley’s use of it. The play is watchable but much of it has the deadening feel of overworked, hyper-self-conscious, metatheatrical political drama. Every time Beale shows up as Stalin, though, he gives it a shot in the arm. He plays the tyrant as coarse and brusque but also witty and self-aware. If the play is considerably less entertaining than it wants to be, Beale’s performance is a raucously enjoyable mix of political caricature and invention.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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