REVIEW: Collaborators by John Hodge
Very little is as it seems in this history play of ideas, personalities, comedy, love and violence. The mix is infectious, keeping the audience guessing about its direction and allegiances. In the first half, lightness and humour play up the contradictions within Stalin’s Soviet dictatorship. Stalin is a jolly avuncular chap, seemingly more interested in theatre than running the country. Bulgakov is an intellectual and playwright, juggling conscience with the need to protect himself and those he loves.
Bulgakov (Mike Stoneham) and his partner Yelena (Susannah Mayor) are a delightful couple struggling along in poverty with their values and love to hold them together. Friends, Praskovya (Colette Rouhier) and Vasily (Arnold Kruger) share their flat and the trials of neither coffee nor comfort. Young Sergei (Richard Smith) lives in the cupboard, spouting the party line from the heart and showing a sweet humanity. The doctor (Peter Mould) is a marvellous clown of a character and we all duly laugh at his antics. Another playwright, Grigory (Alan Haynes), and Anna (Charly Guyatt) add to the mix of earnest and lovely people. Even the secret police officers (Stewart Farmer and Andrew White) are a couple of bad guy stooges that we can love to hate. It is all very very entertaining, endearing and what a laugh.
Then it cracks. The corruption within Stalin and Bulgakov’s collaboration seeps out, infecting relationships, lives and the atmosphere of the play. It isn’t funny any more; characters we feel for are disappearing and dying, either at the hands of others or by their own. By the end we are stunned; embarrassed that we could have taken it so lightly at the start.
Superb performances from the two leads, Ian Klemen (Stalin) and Mike Stoneham (Bulgakov), set the tone of a production without a weak link. Scenes flowed effortlessly within the single set, a masterpiece of surreal design (Dee Harvey) and invention in itself. The creativity of the production shone through; actors played as written, not forcing their roles, but finding characters and relationships that, however bizarre, felt real. Supporting actors, Mary Hooper, Sally Ann Lycett and Jonathan Todd also delivered exactly what was required. And cameos from Anne Edwards as the cleaner in the brutal dungeons of the secret police and Zoe Morgan as the sparkling drinks-tray-carrying nurse slotted in perfectly.
Thank you director Maureen Nelson for bringing to life a rarely performed but thoroughly unsettling piece of theatre.