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Theatre review: Collaborators 
19th-Nov-2011 06:21 pm
One of last year's more unusual theatrical memes was "favourite plays of bloody dictators" and the National had a huge hit with one Stalin was a huge fanboy of, Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard. This year they take us behind the scenes, and after Danny Boyle's stint at the National his regular screenwriter John Hodge gets a go there with his first work for the stage, Collaborators. Following the popularity of The White Guard, Bulgakov found his work censored or outright banned, culminating in his Molière stagnating in rehearsals for three years only to get cancelled after a single performance. An apparent lifeline was given to him by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, who asked him to write a play about Stalin to celebrate the dictator's 60th birthday; in return Molière and the playwright's earlier works would be allowed back into the repertoire. Where Hodge strays from fact is in imagining that in order to write a play so opposite to his true beliefs, Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) secretly met with Stalin himself (Simon Russell Beale) gaining a terrifying insight into the paranoia and twisted logic that fueled Stalin's reign of terror.

Collaborators approaches its serious topic with surprisingly broad black comedy. After last year's Earthquakes In London the National seem to have remembered that the Cottesloe is a studio space, so here Bob Crowley gives us an unusual zig-zagging thrust stage; while director Nicholas Hytner seems to still be carrying some of the OTT style of One Man, Two Guvnors with him. Add George Fenton's jaunty music and touches like a young man (Pierce Reid) living in Bulgakov's cupboard and there's a cartoonish feel to the play that isn't quite the first thing you expect in a play about Stalin's Terrors. The central big names are as good as expected, SRB enjoying the opportunity to go to his broader performance style as an incongruously cuddly Stalin, Jennings' Bulgakov desperately trying to keep up with the dictator's mood swings and maintain both his safety and his sanity. Somewhere in between them is Mark Addy as Vladimir, an NKVD officer turned director of the play, who shares a lot of funny scenes with Jennings.

Hodge takes his conceit a step further in having Stalin actually end up writing the play, and in return giving Bulgakov his affairs of state to casually initial, and then have to deal with the bloody effects both on masses of strangers and, eventually, on his own closest friends and family. While both the comedy and the darkness are well-done, Hodge and Hytner can't quite reconcile the two and it left me unsure what I thought of the play as a whole. I think Collaborators is most effective in conveying the atmosphere of maddening uncertainty that Stalin fostered, making the USSR sumbit to his will not just through brute force but with toying, sometimes in person, with the populace psychologically. In any case my mum, whose Christmas present this was as she's a big SRB fan, was very impressed with the show.

Collaborators by John Hodge is booking until the 31st of March at the National Theatre's Cottesloe (returns and day seats only; broadcast live to cinemas on the 1st of December.)
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