Collaborators, National Theatre, London

By Eve Tushnet | January 6, 2011

John Hodge’s new play Collaborators has a truly high concept: When Mikhail Bulgakov reluctantly accepts a commission to create a play glamorizing Stalin’s life, he ends up exchanging places with the dictator, unwittingly ordering massacres and purges while Stalin himself pens the hagiographic play. Hijinks ensue!

Hodge, who also wrote the screenplays for Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, has got hold of several potentially interesting ideas here. Bulgakov often wove fantastic elements into his writing; his most famous work, The Master and Margarita, portrays Stalinist Moscow as a nightmare carnival. Hodge, and London’s National Theatre (where Collaborators will be playing until January 21—it had a one-time broadcast showing in United States theaters), have extended this concept in their staging. The play is performed in the round, and the stage itself is gray with crazed, jagged edges outlined in bright red, giving the whole setting a Looney Tunes feel. The scenes in which Stalin and Bulgakov switch places around the typewriter also have this manic cartoon energy: You can almost hear Bulgakov saying, “I say it’s duck season and I say fire!”, right before Stalin blows his beak off. This gallows-humor staging is probably the best thing about the play. The other fantasy elements mostly work as well; the play-within-a-play scenes flow easily in and out of the narrative, and although most of the characters are caricatures, some of them are brilliant caricatures, like the ghastly, lecherous doctor who seems to have wandered in from a production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But at some point you do have to ask: Why this subject now? What is being said about Stalin, or complicity, or artistic creation? And here the big ideas are both less persuasive and less well-executed.

Stalin himself, played by Simon Russell Beale, comes across as an impulsive hysteric—the tyrant as toddler. And yet when he hands his files over to Bulgakov, preferring playwriting to checking the steel production quotas, Bulgakov finds that his intellect and humane sensibility don’t translate into better decisions. When he has to choose between shooting the peasants and taking their wheat or letting the cities starve, he finds himself echoing Stalin’s reasoning and self-justifications, and making the same cruel choices as the historical Stalin. In this absurdist alternate history, Bulgakov’s naivete causes the great Stalinist terror of the 1930s: He thought “make further enquiries” meant that the NKVD would ask a few people some pertinent questions! He is drawn deeper and deeper into complicity until he becomes a broken man.

There’s a certain gravity of fatalism to this perspective, historical determinism filtered through a surreal sensibility. Intelligence, gentleness of character, strength of principle, none of that matters—if you were in Stalin’s place you’d be Stalin, full stop, history abhors a vacuum. There’s no room here for the complacent belief that smart and well-intentioned people could wield power without cruelty. There’s even a sort of grim charity in this perspective, in which the dissident heroes got lucky in their victimhood and powerlessness—at least they weren’t the rulers! And it’s impossible to judge the counterfactual true or false based on evidence rather than philosophy, although I’m not persuaded. Tom might switch places with Jerry, but I don’t think Bulgakov and Stalin really would.

Complicity narratives usually rely on a feeling of slow corruption rather than an instant unmasking, and Collaborators gets Bulgakov in too deep too fast. The writer has to become unimaginably naïve in order for the conceit to work.

The light-switch characterization changes work just fine for one character, a fat NKVD officer who serves as a minor mirror for Bulgakov. The officer displays an acute critical sense from the start, discerning Bulgakov’s affection for bourgeois life in The White Guard despite Stalin’s gushing praise. When he later seems to abandon his critical senses, fawning over the saccharine hero narrative Stalin has written for himself, there’s a nice ambiguity as to whether he’s just playing it safe or whether his loyal-comrade mask has finally sunk into the skin. He’s able to make not one but two heel-face turns without appearing as if the heavy hand of the writer is yanking him around. He also manages to make the dialogue’s heavy irony into menacing fun. Lines like, “Sir, I think you’ve spent too long in show business! Here in the secret police, a man’s word is his bond,” could be clunky and obvious, but because Mark Addy makes it clear that his character is in on the cruel joke, he gives a skin-crawling portrayal of how an intelligent man might survive and adapt in a totalitarian system.

Maybe this works because he’s a minor character. When Bulgakov takes only one scene to start empathizing with and defending Stalin, it’s hard to feel as if we, the audience, have been drawn in alongside him. We’re not made complicit ourselves, which, in a play called Collaborators, has to count as a dramatic failure.

The bizarre speed of Bulgakov’s character arc could work, possibly, if the cartoon and masquerade elements were even more prominent. Even then, though, the easy on-the-nose dialogue would hurt the play a lot. Many of the jokes are cliched (do we still need cracks about how there’s no coffee for the proles in Stalinist Moscow?) and the wafer-thin supporting characters frequently tell us what we’ve already figured out from the main action. When Bulgakov tells his wife that he’s wrung a concession from Stalin, who will now allow another dissident writer to publish “everything he writes from now on,” she informs him that the writer has just killed himself after writing a “self-criticism” as his suicide note. She then says, “’Publish everything he writes from now on’! That’s a funny joke.” Lady, we get it.

There are some good touches here. I like that Stalin types with the hunt-and-peck method. I like Stalin’s petulant line, “Bulgakov, I feel hurt!”, as he slams the writer’s head into the table. “Only you can get inside my head!” is a great line, with its weird self-alienation and codependence.

This is an ambitious play. If it’s more interesting than illuminating, well—it’s hard to get inside Stalin’s head.

Eve Tushnet is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She blogs at EveTushnet.com.