by John Hodge.
Cottesloe Theatre Southbank SE1 9PX In rep to 21 January 2012.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval
TICKETS: 09069 104 431.
Review: William Russell 1 November.
Screenwriter’s script may work better when stage takes to the screen.
The predicament of the artist trapped in a world ruled by a tyrant, in this case Josef Stalin, provides the material for John Hodge’s fascinating, but uneven play about the dramatist Mikhail Bulgakov.
Best known as a screen writer – Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, The Beach – Hodge creates a fantasy world in which Bulgakov, beautifully played by Alex Jennings, confronts the tyrant in his imagination.
It is 1938, the height of the terror the dictator inflicted on Russia. Bulgakov’s play, The White Guard, about the Russian revolution, was Stalin’s favourite play – he saw it 15 times – and he wanted Bulgakov, dying from a kidney disease, to write about his early years as a revolutionary.
What should an artist do? Resist, or collaborate in a blatant propaganda exercise contrary to all he stood for? Had Bulgakov any choice? His career was in the doldrums. Was this an escape route to a better apartment and life, or a dead end?
Hodge’s play is funny in a nightmarish way, but the decision to let the people the overwrought dramatist imagines as he struggles to write, emerge from a wardrobe in his cramped Moscow apartment is mistaken. One keeps expecting the Lion from Narnia will bound on instead of Simon Russell Beale’s Stalin, oozing fake bonhomie, in a bad wig.
Hodge sets up a situation in which Stalin writes the play Mark Addy’s jovial, dangerous NKVD man has ordered Bulgakov to produce as a birthday surprise for the dictator, while in turn the dramatist advises Stalin about ruling Russia. The play, ‘Batum’, was never performed. Stalin changed his mind.
Collaborators, for all its shortcomings, makes an effective companion to The White Guard and the play based on Nikita Mikhalkov’s film Burnt By the Sun about the terror, done in recent seasons on the South Bank.
It will be broadcast in over 120 cinemas in the UK and 600 world-wide on December 1 as part of the National Theatre Live season and may be more effective on the screen than in the theatre, where things get tangled up on Bob Crowley’s awkwardly designed set.
Mikhail Bulgakov: Alex Jennings.
Yelena: Jacqueline Defferary.
Joseph Stalin: Simon Russell Beale.
Vasilly: Patrick Godfrey.
Praskovya: Maggie Service.
Sergei : Pierce Reid.
Grigory: William Postlethwaite.
Anna: Jess Murphy.
Vladimir: Mark Addy.
Stepan: Marcus Cunningham.
Doctor: Nick Sampson.
Actor 1: Perri Snowdon.
Actor 2: Michael Jenn.
Eva: Sarah Annis.
Director: Nicholas Hytner.
Designer: Bob Crowley.
Lighting: Jon Clark.
Sound: Paul Arditti.
Music: George Fenton.