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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Jacqueline Defferary and Alex Jennings/ Ph: Johan Persson

Comedy dictators are all the totalitarian rage at the moment, thanks to Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest, critically divisive film. But if you want to see what understated humour can achieve – as opposed to jokes that smack you with all the subtlety of a bullet from a Kalashnikov – then the National Theatre is offering a last chance to catch one of the greatest surprise double acts in town.
Collaborators, with its savagely ironic title, introduces a spiky fantasy about a writing partnership between Josef Stalin and the terminally ill Mikhail Bulgakov: an acutely comic game with history, for in real life, of course, the playwright was one of Soviet Russia’s great artistic dissidents. As with Shostakovich, Bulgakov’s talent found him falling prey to the schizophrenic attentions of a paranoid state. On the one hand Stalin came to his Day of the Turbins 15 times. On the other, that play – along with Flight, Last Days, Madame Zoyka and Moliere – was banned, leading Bulgakov to a state of despair in which he eventually wrote directly to the stage-struck tyrant.
Did a gesture that bordered on insanity save his life? Possibly. What playwright John Hodge has done here is take us to the moment where – safely ensconced at the Moscow Arts Theatre – Bulgakov accepts the Faustian pact of writing a play celebrating Stalin himself. The comedy that ensues here is a reductio ad absurdum. The phone rings, Bulgakov picks it up, and Josef himself is on the line, chummily proposing that they get together to bash out his life story on the typewriter. It looks like streamlined silliness, but gradually the layers of comedy build to ask profound questions, not least about at what level appeasement becomes collaboration.
The production’s fluid humour is considerably facilitated by Bob Crowley’s monumental design, which spans the Olivier stage like a giant constructivist spider web. An appropriately steely grey (no doubt inspired by the fact that "Stalin" is the Russian word for steel) dominates its zigzagging walkways, which are bordered with Soviet red. The first nightmare – the one that opens the action – is a comedy. A sonorous knocking on the door heralds Stalin’s eruption from Bulgakov’s kitchen cupboard. The dictator then chases him around his study slapstick style with the typewriter with which he intends to bludgeon him to death.
It helps that you feel director Nicholas Hytner has had a ball making this with Simon Russell Beale (Stalin) and Alex Jennings (Bulgakov), two of the National’s great heavyweight talents. Russell Beale’s Stalin is a wannabe comic with a soft West Country burr – he waddles around the stage, corpses, and at times almost evokes the late great Tommy Cooper. But as the jokes start to stain real life – Stalin invites the playwright to comment on reports of steel production, or dissidents’ confessions as he merrily types dialogue – Jennings’ urbane Bulgakov starts to dwindle. What’s so compelling about his performance is the way he clearly conveys that it is censorship and its consequences rather than kidney disease that is killing him.
Hodge was the writer who helped rejuvenate the British film industry in the 90s with scripts for such films as Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. The same adrenalised zip that characterised those works animates the stage action here, but the black humour targets bigger themes, the most interesting of which is the idea that as a dictator you create your own reality just as surely as a playwright does when writing dialogue for the stage – something that has especially chilling resonance today, not just in Syria, as the Assad regime blithely denies responsibility for its massacres, but repeatedly across the world as recently chronicled in Nick Cohen’s powerful polemic "You Can’t Read This Book." This is not just a well-spun history lesson.
Yet somehow this is an evening as intoxicating as its message is sobering. It has brought out the best in an artistic team already at the top of its game: a collaboration – unlike the one at the play’s heart – greatly to be celebrated.


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