Collaborators

John Hodge
RNT Cottesloe Theatre
(2011)

Collaborators production photo

With Danny Boyle having made a triumphant National debut with Frankenstein earlier in the year, this is the opportunity for his own favourite collaborator, John Hodge, to try his luck writing for the theatre.

Hodge is best known as scriptwriter on such projects as Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and The Beach but has not previously written a stage play.

He has fallen on his feet, getting Nicholas Hytner as a director, joined by his own favourites, Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale in the leading roles.

Collaborators is a play that looks at the uncomfortable relationship between the playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, played by Jennings, and the great leader, Russell Beale's Josef Stalin.

A striking opening sets the tone as the author is petrified by the sinister nocturnal knocks on the door that were such a trademark of this era and then, in silent movie fashion, gets chased around his apartment at high speed by Stalin himself.

Starting in 1938, as the writer learns that he has a fatal disease which will leave him only a year to live, the drama quickly becomes the prefigured ironic nightmare for the rebellious literary genius.

His problems and those of his supportive wife, played by Jacqueline Defferary, start when the NKVD or secret police arrive in the person of Mark Addis playing Vladimir. On the night of its triumphant opening, this cheerful hatchet man tells the writer that his briefly-seen Molière will close immediately.

For a man who has spent three years writing the work and then trying to get it staged, this is devastating news.

A ray of hope arrives when the darkly humorous NKVD man tells the writer that he can reverse the decision. However, a Mephistophelian pact will be required under which Bulgakov must write a heavily hagiographical play lauding the life and achievements of the country's leader.

The Bulgakovian irony is that while Stalin regularly banned his work, the leader was an admirer of the writings and especially The White Guard (memorably revived by Howard Davies at the National last year).

Though his initial reaction is instinctive revulsion, a secret meeting with his "number one fan" Stalin in the Metro beneath the Kremlin initiates a bizarre, unearthly collaboration in which the writer dictates to the dictator who writes.

The excerpts that we see from the play suggest that socialist realism is a misnomer for this soap opera, as Young Josef spends its duration showing its subject in the kind of heroic light that induces sarcasm rather than admiration.

While Collaborators ostensibly centres on the two great men, it is most effective in portraying the purges for which Stalin became notorious. It does this obliquely as characters disappear and we hear of ever worsening excesses being perpetrated around the USSR.

The opening booking period was inevitably sold out on the back of Collaborators' star turns. Alex Jennings portrays the writer as a nervy man who gradually subsumes his moral and ethical concerns in order to allow his newest baby to lead a healthy life on stage.

Simon Russell Beale is obliged to make Stalin into a comical egotist without fully having the opportunity to expand the sinister mentality that led to the deaths of millions during his long reign of terror.

Collaborators is a witty and at times chilling vision of life in the Stalinist USSR. Where it does not quite hit the mark is in creating fully developed portraits of its co-protagonists.

"Collaborators " plays until 31 March 2012

Reviewer: Philip Fisher