‘Collaborators’ at the Olivier Theatre

Collaborators, a new play by John Hodge, and starring Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings, re-imagines a relationship between Stalin, and Mikhail Bulgakov, the writer of The White Guard and The Master and Margarita.  

Although The White Guard, a production of which the National Theatre staged last year, is a play which gives a sympathetic portrayal of people opposed to Bolshevism, it was allegedly one of Stalin’s favourite plays, and he saw it many times.  But Bulgakov, like so many writers and artists in post revolutionary Russia fell foul of the soviet leaders.

His masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, is a surreal satirical vision of what might happen when the Devil visited Moscow in the company of his fast talking black cat. In it he paints a picture of a greedy dysfunctional society, and although he finished it just before he died, he never saw it published, and when it was first printed in Soviet Russia, it was significantly edited and a full version only appeared in the 1970s.

One mystery in his career of writing bleak black comedies sending up the Soviet regime which were routinely banned by the authorities, was that he wrote a hagiographic play about Stalin’s early years.

It is this fact that is the starting point for Collaborators.  Did he write it as part of a deal to get his play Moliere performed, or were members of his family threatened if he didn’t do it?

The play is a giddy production on a crooked round stage, exploring in surreal terms how effectively Stalin got inside Bulgakov’s head to torment him.  There is much that is blackly ridiculous in the play,including a dream sequence were Stalin pursues Bulgakov around the stage to eventually beat him with his own typewriter, but that felt to me, entirely in keeping, echoing as it does Bulgakov’s own style of satire.

The casting is brilliant: Alex Jennings gives a haunting performance of an artist torn by guilt in the knowledge that he is collaborating with a regime that he knows is profoundly evil.  It raises, in an extreme situation, that perennial question of how much should an artist compromise to survive in the world?  What would you do when faced with tyranny that threatens you and your family?

And then there is Simon Russell Beale playing Stalin as an affable fool, with a country accent and a limp at the beginning; but at the moment when his eyes go dead, and he reveals how calculating he has been, how manipulative, how he knew exactly how effectively he was manipulating Bulgakov.

I cannot recommend this play highly enough.

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2 Comments

  1. Lovely post. If the play ever comes to the Netherlands, I’ll get tickets.

    I have to say that ‘The Master and Margarita’ is my all time favorite Russian novel, right up there with War & Peace and The Devils. I tried readin ‘The White Guard’ about five years ago but just couldn’t get into it (perhaps the fact that I was on vacation in a remote village on the mountains in France required a somewhat gentler prose). After three attempts at the first chapter I gave up and left it for the future… well, maybe now, since you’ve reminded me 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you very much. I’ve never read White Guard, but I very much enjoyed seeing the play when it was on in London last year. Reminding myself of The Master and Margarita has made me think I’ll read it again – but I’ve lent my copy to a friend so much of an evangelist am I about it as a great book. I’m very glad to meet another fan of the Russian great online.

      Reply

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