BBC Radio 3, 30 September 2012
First staged to great acclaim, both popular and critical, at the Royal
National Theatre, Collaborators tells the story of Mikhail Bulgakov (Alex Jennings), who lives among the dissidents
in 1930s Russia, unsure as to whether his new play about Moliere will ever be performed. Continually hounded by the
NKVD, the secret police, he eventually accepts a commission to write a play to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of Joseph Stalin
(Simon Russell Beale). Finding himself bereft of ideas, Bulgakov eventually recives help from Stalin in a collaboration
best described as bizarre.
At one level, John Hodge's play looks at the role of writers in a dictatorship: should
they remain true to themselves, or should they do as they are told in the hope of survival? Bulgakov is faced with an
agonizing choice; if he refutes Stalin's wishes, he might put his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary) in danger. Having agreed
to work with Stalin, Bulgakov enjoys a cushy lifestyle, with none of the hardships associated with his previous life. At
the end of the play, however, he suddenly understands the consequences of his action, with tragic results.
Sir Nicholas Hytner's production used music - by George Fenton - to emphasize the
hazards of working under a dictatorship. Superficially it sounded jaunty, suggesting that life was proceeding as normal.
However this illusion was regularly punctured, as Stalin imposed his will on the people, using the NKVD officers
(Lloyd Hutchinson, Marcus Cunningham) as his private police-force. They spoke in hushed, threatening tones, rarely raising
their voices above a murmur. They had no need to do so: everyone - Bulgakov included - was so terrified of them that
they willingly obeyed the officers' orders.
The production contained two towering central performances from Jennings and Russell
Beale. Jennings' Bulgakov made every effort to sustain an urbane exterior, even though he was a perpetual victim of circumstance. Being
a writer in Stalinist Russia was a hazardous task. Russell Beale's Stalin was quite simply a monster; a would-be writer
from a modest background who could not abide anyone who resisted him. Although seeming outwardly pleasant, his fundamentally
sadistic nature kept coming to the surface with frightening results.
I did not see Collaborators on the stage; from the evidence of John Hodge
and Chris Wallis' adaptation, however, I believe that it is something of a modern classic. Congratulations to everyone involved.