Thursday, 1 March 2012

Collaborators at the National Theatre "It's man versus monster Mikhail..."

John Hodge's new play "Collaborators" is currently running in the Cottesloe at London's National Theatre. It is very difficult to get a ticket but I finally managed it earlier this week and am very glad that I persevered.

The play shows the once officially "banned" writer Mikhail Bulgakov struggle with a request that he write a play about Stalin's younger days to mark the dictator's 60th birthday. Bulgakov, played by Alex Jennings, is plagued by nightmares about being chased by Stalin - demonstrated in an extremely funny and almost slapstick opening where the dream is played out, and expects a knock at the door in the middle of the night as did many writers and artists during this time. When the knock eventually comes and the NKVD (secret police) agent arrives, it is to inform him he will be writing the play for Stalin's birthday rather than to incarcerate him in Lubyanka.

We see Bulgakov's initial resistance to the task, refusing to co-operate with a regime he opposes. Early scenes show him as a principled liberal, devastated by the banning of his play "Moliere" which shows the great French writer dying as a result of "the King's displeasure" - a clear reference to state censorship and persecution of those who oppose the regime. And it is his desire to see his works produced that eventually proves his undoing. Offered the opportunity to be "unbanned" in return for writing a tributary play to the young Stalin, he agrees to co-operate, but finds that he can't write anything. Stalin offers him a compromise, that he himself will write the play in Bulgakov's name if Bulgakov agrees to deal with Stalin's "paperwork" and sign "JS" against instructions against the Five Year Plan and production of steel, coal and other goods.

As the play develops, we see Bulgakov showered with luxuries unavailable to the vast majority of Soviet citizens - real coffee, good food, his dress improves and he suddenly has access to good health care in contrast to the early scenes where he is told he will die from his condition, that there is no cure and that he will die soon.

Bulgakov is drawn in, co-operates, finds it amusing at first but when things eventually turn nasty, with the round-up of former Soviet heroes such as Kamenev and Bukharin, he starts to worry. Interestingly, Stalin refers to Kamenev as "Rozenfeld" during their discussions - the second time in a week that I have come across this particular case of Soviet anti-semitism (see here). He thinks he can prevent the descending reign of terror by suggesting "further enquiries" rather than allowing trials to go ahead but to his horror this leads to mass arrests, deportations and worse - including the disappearance of his erstwhile liberal and petty bourgeois lodgers.

Bulgakov's former admirers slip away as they hear him parroting the phrases of the NKVD and of Stalin, explaining away the early excesses referred to in the play in return for having his own works performed. Bulgakov's co-operation and developing closeness with Stalin replays the Faustian story of making a pact with the devil, and like Faust it ends badly, with Bulgakov realising his errors too late and then dying anyway due to the illness referred to at the beginning of the play.

Simon Russell Beale excelled in the role of Stalin, combining understated humour with an almost unspoken menace that turns to physical violence at the end of the evening. Early on, he plays the character as a simple, Georgian, still making references to his religious training, speaking romantically of his early days as an agitator in the Caucasus, but slowly revealing his true character and his evil genius. The arch manipulator, he flatters Bulgakov "I am your number one fan", playing on the writer's vanity and eventually flooring him physically but more devastatingly with the speech "Killing my enemies is easy. The challenge is to change the way they think, to control their minds. And I think I controlled yours pretty well. In years to come, I'll be able to say: Bulgakov? Yeah we even trained him. He gave up. He saw the light. We broke him, we can break anybody. It's man versus monster Mikhail. And the monster always wins..."

Mark Addy in the role of Vladimir, the NKVD man was also magnificent. Bullying and cajoling, getting the job done, demonstrating alternately his worldliness and his insecurity and inferiority complex in relation to the intellectuals, he came over for me, strangely, as perhaps the most human character in the play. Strange because he was clearly brutal, ambitious and greedy but human in that his buying into the regime was more honest than that of Bulgakov. The lesser educated man thoroughly understood the rules and consequences of Soviet life and how to play them much better than the famous writer.

In real life, Bulgakov did write a play about Stalin and had a difficult and volatile relationship with the Soviet regime. Graduating as a doctor in Kiev in 1916, he quickly gave up medicine to concentrate on writing, but many of his works were banned with some not being published until decades after his death. By 1930, he had become so frustrated that he took the daring step of writing to Stalin asking to be allowed to emigrate. Stalin telephoned him personally and offered to arrange a job for him at the Moscow Arts Theatre instead. He worked theatre with theatrical giant Stanislavsky, with whom he also had a volatile relationship, produced several plays and his acknowledged masterpiece, the novel "The Master and Margarita". This did not make its first appearance until 1966 due to the persistence of his widow, Elena, although even then only parts of it were published, eventually surfacing in a complete version in 1973.

He contracted a fatal illness in 1939 and died in 1940.

I have to confess to only having read one Bulgakov novel - "Black Snow", and that quite recently. Despite being a bit of a Russophile, at least culturally, I have mixed feelings about Russian novels. Apart from the fact that many are scattered with casual (or not so casual) anti-semitism, lots of them are, well..long. I have reached the age where an 800 pager can seem very daunting. I still have lots of books I want to read. Time is precious.

Black Snow isn't terribly long, but it is interesting. It is a thinly disguised attack on Stanislavsky and some of the other leading lights of the Moscow Art Theatre where Bulgakov worked during the 1930's. The book begins with an attempt at suicide and ends with the revelation that the narrator is already dead having made a further, successful attempt at ending it all.

This relatively short and often amusing novel, which is unfinished, was written at the very end of his life in the late 1930's, just 20 years or so after the establishment of the Soviet Union and in much the same way as "Collaborators" does, it shows that despite the alleged worker's paradise there was still a very clear class structure in Russian society, based on patronage and co-operating with the regime.

"Collaborators" is set to transfer to the larger Olivier Theatre at the National on April 30th and several performances are already sold out.

See also Building the revolution

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