Saturday, 19 November 2011


To the National Theatre to see John Hodge's witty new play Collaborators, intimately staged in the Cottesloe. The play, based in part on truth, centres around the relationship between the dissident writer Mikhail Bulgakov and Josef Stalin, brilliantly played by Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale.

It's 1938 and Bulgakov's new play about the life of Moliere has been declared subversive and withdrawn from the stage. In a Faustian pact to get it back on, he takes a commission to write Young Josef, a hagiographic play celebrating the dictator's impeccable revolutionary credentials. Unfortunately the writer's artistic sensibilities make the task impossible and despite some nasty threats from Mark Addy's blackly comic secret policeman he finds himself struggling to make the first night, scheduled for Stalin's surprise 60th birthday party.

Stalin, who of course, doesn't do surprises, steps in and arranges a series of secret scripting meetings where he delights in swapping roles with Mikhail, typing up glorious scenes from his heroic past whilst temporarily handing over the reins of the USSR, to his adversary.

The leading actors are superb. Russell Beale's Stalin weaves easily between avuncular openness and childish impatience - under which we sense a monstrous ego held short. Whilst Jenning's imbues Bulgakov with the painful realisation that principle has pragmatic parameters and the tired disappointment of a man who, taken off guard, has fallen a little for the devil.

Nick Hytner and Bob Crowley create a surreal, constructivist universe, where dreams, desires, fictions and startlingly reality mix in full absurdist glory. It all made for a dark and delicious evening, designed to puncture any optimistic belief that art can flourish in a totalitarian system.

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