Making art can so often become a dance with the devil.
History is rife with examples: the sculptor who memorialises the despot; the poet who eulogises a tyrant; the architect who designs a megalomaniac’s fantasy; the pop star plays a private gig for an autocrat; the cash-strapped artist applying for funds from a government they rail against.
In Collaborators, British writer John Hodge (best-known as the screenwriter for Trainspotting and its recent T2 sequel) creates a surreal comic drama from one of the best known examples of that troubling dance in twentieth century history: that between the Russian author and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and General Secretary Josef Stalin.
Hodge’s story is based on fact. By 1930, Bulgakov was a desperate man, having fallen foul of the regime’s censors for his sympathetic portrayal of a counter-revolutionary family in his 1926 stage version of his own serialised novel The White Guard.
Critics lined up to pour scorn on Bulgakov’s work but Stalin admired the play. Some would say he was obsessed by it. In between purging the Party and suppressing the Kulaks, he found the time to see the production at least 15 times.
And so rather than being banned (or worse), Bulgakov was levered into an in-house job at the Moscow Art Theatre. He was now a protected species – though, as we know, Stalin’s protection always came at a price.
Rather than present a naturalistic portrait of a Faustian pact, Hodges creates a hallucinatory scenario – a product of Bulgakov’s troubled conscience and the kidney disease that eventually killed him – in which the writer (played by Andy Simpson) and “The Boss” (Richard Cotter) come together to write a laudatory biographical play to be titled Young Josef.
Their roles are immediately reversed. Stalin quickly takes over the task of writing (“Leave the slave labour to me,” he jokes) and starts churning out scenes for a production to be directed by Vladimir (David Woodland), an officer in the secret police.
Bulgakov meanwhile, is introduced to the workings of high office and permanent revolution.
With the General Secretary’s winking approval, he signs off on documents urging factories to increase steel production. Before long, he’s forging Stalin’s initials on lists of traitors and wreckers to be executed.
Originally produced by Britain’s National Theatre in 2011 (it won the Olivier for Best New Play in 2012), Collaborators is a big (cast of 14) and difficult exercise and this production, directed by Moira Blumenthal, doesn’t really have the measure of its scale and scope.
Hodge’s switchbacks between absurd fantasy and macabre reality are flattened out. His humour, though always evident, seldom sparkles. There’s little sense of a world walking on eggshells, of an entire society living in fear of the next knock at the door or ring of the telephone.
The lead roles are decently acted. Cotter’s avuncular Stalin looks to have strolled out of a production of Journey’s End, but his rascally humour proves infectious, even though its chillier edges are missing.
Simpson’s portrayal of Bulgakov lacks some tragic heft but he captures the anxious energy of an artistically and physically compromised man effectively.
Woodland is disturbingly cheerful as Vladimir, the policeman whose entire theatrical experience lies in making prisoners believe they are about to be shot.
Audrey Blyde (Bulgakov’s wife Yelena), Peter Farmer (a corrupt doctor) and Dave Kirkham (a pre-revolution relic called Vasilly) offer solid support.
You can’t fault the New Theatre for its ambition. But you wish it could draw on more resources – in acting, design and technical departments – to back it up.