In 1938, Joseph Stalin commissioned the gadfly author Mikhail Bulgakov to write a play. The subject was to be the Soviet leader’s early years. A professional hangman couldn’t have fashioned a neater noose.
Screenwriter John Hodge (“Trainspotting,” “The Beach”) makes this historical incident the basis of his first stage play, “Collaborators,” now starring Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings at the National Theatre in London. Nicholas Hytner directs.
The opportunity to see two of Britain’s most celebrated comic actors sparring on stage, under a safe pair of directorial hands, ensured that the entire run sold out.
If you don’t have a ticket, don’t feel blue. The actors’ talents are woefully underexploited, and Hytner’s flourishes go for nothing. Even China doesn’t produce this much waste.
Hodge’s principal Macguffin is to imagine that Stalin and Bulgakov meet personally.
“Me, a mere philistine, to collaborate with the great Mikhail Bulgakov,” sighs Stalin obsequiously. To spare the author any effort, Stalin decides to write the play himself. While he types away, he suggests that, quid pro quo, Bulgakov should go through the Soviet chief’s in-tray, sign off documents, make directives about steel and grain, order inquiries.
Stalin writes a wooden, melodramatic piece of hagiography, of which we see staged excerpts. Actors doing exaggerated “bad” acting? Yep. It’s as grim as it sounds.
Meanwhile, as a joke, Bulgakov secretly orders steel production to increase, troops to requisition grain from starving peasants, and the like.
Among his Bohemian friends, he starts to defend the difficult decisions of the authorities even while his directives are leading to famine, suicide and terror.
Fancy that. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Who’d have guessed?
Great satire, it isn’t. The problem is that it isn’t really a play either. Little bitty scenes bump nose-to-tail as in a traffic jam. Exits for characters aren’t properly written in. A meaty and complex confrontation between the leads never takes place. Hodge’s origins in the world of screenplay-lite are dispiritingly obvious.
Russell Beale and Jennings are still enjoyably watchable. The former makes an avuncular, jokey Stalin, who speaks with a warm country burr and who walks with a limp.
“You’re a subversive worm, but nevertheless I like you,” he says with a twinkle to Bulgakov.
If the writing presents few opportunities for complexity, the actor supplies the lack, and suggests psychopathic tyranny concealed under shoulder-patting and hair-ruffling gestures.
Jennings is terrific, too, as a man cornered. Each compromise takes him further and further from his comfort zone, and we see him sweat and tremble when the darkness finally descends around him.
Bob Crowley’s traverse set uses expressionist zig-zags and skewed angles to suggest a world out of joint, and Hytner’s production rolls along skillfully.
In real life, Stalin tightened his noose and Bulgakov’s play “Batum” was never staged. It would have been kinder if “Collaborators” had met a similar fate. Rating: *1/2.
“Collaborators” is at the National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX, through March 2012. All tickets are sold, though day seats are available. The production will be broadcast as part of the National Theatre Live season to movie houses in the U.K. and worldwide on Dec. 1.
Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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