Mini-review – Collaborators – National Theatre

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As ever, I’m a big fan of new plays, so when the National announced a new play about Mikhail Bulgakov was going to be in their fall/winter season, I was all over it. I mean, hell, a play about the author of The Master and Margarita (which I’d just read the previous year)? Yes please! I was slightly put off by it being more about the suffering of creative types during the Stalinist purges – I had some fears it would become miserabilist but decided I’d be hopeful and bought tickets anyway, for very early in the run.

Then something unforeseen happened: a one night only event came up that was so exciting I decided to postpone seeing the play. And somehow, it had become very popular, very fast, and the next time I could get two tickets for a show I had been planning to see in November … was January! Ah well. So this is my review, rather late, of a show that nobody is bothering to look for reviews of anymore.

To my surprise – it was great, a perfect marriage of a fine script and excellent acting, with the National for once restraining itself and not putting in an overdesigned set that stifled the imagination. Instead, Bob Crowley created a simple-seeming zig zag through the center of the Cottlesloe, with a little walkway around the near end of it and little Constructivist extrusions that hinted at walls and windows, and small changes of decor to indicate the center table was now a dining room/ a doctor’s office/ a desk in a writer’s workshop.

The play started off with an absurdist note, as Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) is having a dream in which a Elmer Fudd-like Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) is chasing him around his apartment with a typewriter. Real life, however, is just as ridiculous, as the Bulgakovs wake up to discover a new tenant is now living in their wardrobe (he falls out of it). They are dealing with the privations of daily life by living a little bit of a fantasy world, pretending to pour coffee for breakfast and then bragging about the wonderful hot baths they have taken.

With this warping of reality, the conceit of the play – that Bulgakov is “asked” to write a play about Stalin, then meets with Stalin regularly in a secret bunker where Joe types it up while Bulgakov takes care of business of being a dictator – just plain works. Beale keeps the big man wavering on either side of sanity, while Jennings manages to make Bulgakov’s evolution from underdog to willing servant of an ugly machine seem completely logical. But the genius of the play is that this interaction takes on the hyperreality of a fairy tale in which a deal is struck with the devil (or with fairies), and every wish you make is warped in front of you – handfuls of gold coins turn into rotting leaves, the gift of eternal life is twinned with eternal aging, a beautiful house is revealed to be roofless and full of cobwebs. Every step Bulgakov makes, whether it’s to work with or undermine Stalin, is twisted around so that he becomes an object of hatred to all of his friends, a person who actively undermines other artists, and, finally, a writer who is so compromised he has completely lost sight of his own authorial integrity.

From reading the program notes, it’s clear that none of this ever happened, and that the play is a fantasia on the real life of Bulgakov. But its grounding in reality means hits deeper truths that a more factual play would have been less universal (while I was given enough of a teaser to become interested in reading what really happened at the time). Overall, this was a brilliant work, wonderfully presented, and while I’m glad to hear it’s transferring to the Olivier, I think there will be something lost in taking away the intimacy (and the additional strangeness caused by the audience being dropped in lumps around the corners of the set) of the Cottlesloe. See it there if you can, but do see it even if you have to wait; a new work this good is truly a reason to celebrate.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 17th, 2012. It is booking through Sunday, May 13th, 2012.)

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